Are we too busy to be happy?
You’re running late, you’re worrying about all the things you haven’t yet had time to do but you haven’t got time to write a list – sound familiar? According to a recent survey, we apparently feel busier than ever in our everyday lives, and many of us said we struggle to find time to relax. Interestingly, according to surveys about how long we spend in the workplace, we actually appear to have more leisure time that ever before. Our lives are full of time-saving gadgets, which mean we can instantly transfer money to pay a bill for example (rather than schlepping to a bank when it eventually opens) – so is being busier than ever just a perception?
According to analysts, it’s all about how we use the spare time that we do have. With over two thirds of people using their smartphone for over two hours a day, perhaps we fill our downtime with other things that feel like work. (If you use a computer at work, for example, facing another screen when you get home may make you feel like you are still toiling.) Maybe we associate leisure time with being with family and friends, but the nature of our modern busy lives means that we feel like we see them less.
The balance between being busy, being bored, or being too busy is a tricky one. US research into why happy people are busy, but don’t feel rushed, certainly shows that there is a correlation between keeping relatively busy and feeling happy. They key point of the survey research is that the happy (yet busy) people don’t feel stressed by their business, allowing them to find time to be happy.
So how do we aim to stay happy in spite of our business? Psychologists recommend a few top tips to keeping on top of our busy lifestyles:
Diarise free time and plan it properly. If you know you’ll have four spare hours on Sunday, why not make a plan to see friends or family, or take part in an organised activity? You may feel too busy to want to plan anything on your day off, but if you leave it to the last minute you may end up wasting your spare time.
Have phone-free time. Designate hours in the day where you put your mobile phones away. If you have children it is especially important to have smartphone-free family time, but even if you live alone try to put your phone down somewhere for a set amount of time so that you can focus on cooking, talking to someone or doing something off-screen that you enjoy – such as painting, sewing, DIY or card making.
Try to single-task and slow down. Apps, TV on demand and email makes us expect things to happen in a short space of time. (Surveys show that one in five people will abandon videos they want to watch if they don’t load within 5 seconds, for example.) Sometimes when things take longer it can exacerbate our feelings of stress, making us feel unhappy. Try doing just one task at a time, and taking things slowly when you can. The feeling of business often comes when you are trying to fit in too much, so take stock and focus on the important things first.
Breathe.Perhaps it won’t matter if you don’t answer that WhatsApp message instantly. Maybe your friends won’t mind if you call them back later. If you’re feeling stressed and over-busy, some simple breathing exercises can really help. The NHS has a great guide to relaxation, which can be fitted into a short lunch break, as well as ways to reduce stress-induced headaches.
He’s not well known for his great philosophical works, but Eric Carle’s poem for children, ‘One Easy Rule’, is a poignant one which I’ll always remember:
Here’s a rule to help you
Stay as happy as can be.
Keep as cheerful as a cricket,
And as busy as a bee.
- Eric Carle and Veronica Wagner, from ‘Animal Tales’ (PIL books, 2014)
When I last checked, bees don’t tend to do much multitasking. They never order a take-away whilst also checking Facebook, or shop online whilst reading the news. They just go from flower to flower, making honey at their own pace. Yes, they are busy, but aren’t we all? Maybe we too should just try to focus on the sweet stuff in life, and everything else will fall into place.