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If someone were to ask you how happy you are, how would you respond?
University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson has been studying how people answer that question for nearly 40 years, and he's been looking at that happiness question as it relates to two other questions, both about how people view their time.
The first: "Would you say that you always feel rushed, only sometimes feel rushed or almost never feel rushed?"
And the second: "How often do you have time on your hands that you don't know what to do with: most of the time, some of the time, none of the time?"
Putting the happiness question aside for just a second, it's interesting to note that according to Robinson's analysis, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "always feeling rushed" actually went down between 2004 and 2010.
"That was really a surprise to me," he says. "Particularly with all this new technology that we have, which is very time-demanding. I know I have a hard time dealing with it; it raises my blood pressure!"
Something else that surprised Robinson is what happens when you bring the happiness question in. According to his research, the people who report being the happiest, about 8 to 12 percent of Americans, "say they almost never feel rushed, and they do not have time on their hands they don't know what to do with," explains Robinson.
Extra time = less happiness
Robinson isn't the only happiness researcher intrigued by this finding. Erik Angner, who teaches philosophy, economics and public policy at George Mason University, says he was surprised to find that people who had a lot of excess time on their hands reported being less happy.
"I would have thought that the relationship would go the other way around," he says. "I guess that people who have leisure and who fill it with meaningful things tend to be happier, although they report they don't have excess time."
But Angner, who studies happiness from a more philosophical point-of-view, not sociological, says he does wonder how people are interpreting this question of having time on their hands.
"Somebody who spends six hours watching television a day: would he or she say that he [or she] has got excess time on his hands?" Angner asks. "I would think that he or she does. But the person who does that might nonetheless feel like he or she has got a busy day." It's funny that Angner should mention television, because in a separate study John Robinson conducted, he found an interesting correlation between TV-watching and happiness levels.
"The more people watch television, the less happy they are," he says. "I think it's just the fact that television is an activity that people choose to do when they don't have anything else to do. That probably defines the kinds of people who have time on their hands they don't know what to do with."
Don't hurry, be happy
Which brings us back to our seeming paradox: the fact that our busiest Americans seem to be the most blissful.
"I think it has a lot to do with control," Robinson posits. "If you don't feel rushed, that means you're feeling some control. If you always feel rushed, generally I think that says that there's outside pressures that are impinging on how you feel.
"The same thing is true with regard to having time on your hands you don't know what to do with. If you have your life scheduled in such a way that you have them under control and you're not doing nothing, just waiting for things to happen, that seems to be a combination which leads to quite a jump in people's perceived happiness."
And if we want to talk about a combination, which leads to quite a drop in people's perceived happiness, we need only to look at people who say they have a lot of time on their hands, and always feel rushed.
It's pretty much a Goldilocks thing: you don't want too much excess time or too little; you don't want too much rushing or too little. You want it to be just right. Or, as Robinson wrote in a recent issue of Scientific American: "Happiness means being just rushed enough."
"It may be a bit commonsensical, but it is the case," he says. "So the takeaway line is: 'Don't hurry, be happy,'"
[Music: "Don't Worry Be Happy" by DJ Carlo from Don't Worry Be Happy (Nederlandse verse)]