Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Key to Happiness: Keeping Busy Without Feeling Rushed

• January 07, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds that, compared to past decades, fewer Americans call themselves very happy. But one subgroup is an exception.

Who among us are the most happy? Newly published research suggests it is those fortunate folks who have little or no excess time, and yet seldom feel rushed.

This busy but blissful group comprises 8 to 12 percent of Americans, making it “a small and unusual minority within the general population,” writes University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson.

According to his analysis, the happiness level of this group is 12 to 25 percent higher than that of those of most Americans. What’s more, while the general population’s happiness level is going down, theirs is increasing: 53 percent of people in this group called themselves “very happy” in a 2009 survey, compared to 48 percent in surveys from 1976 and 1982.

That’s just one fascinating nugget from a paper that contradicts a lot of conventional wisdom—including the assumption that, as they struggle with demanding jobs, financial pressures, and family obligations, Americans are feeling more and more time pressure.

Rather, Robinson reports, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “always rushed” declined significantly between 2004 and the end of the decade.

In a series of surveys in the 1980s and 1990s, around 34 percent of people consistently described themselves in that manner. But that number decreased to 28 percent in a 2009 University of North Florida survey, and in the 2010 round of the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, it was down to 25 percent.

“The decline was found both among employed and unemployed respondents,” Robinson writes in the journal Social Indicators Research, “indicating it was not simply a function of higher unemployment.”

Nevertheless, Robinson believes the economic downturn played a role in this shift. He notes that, according to the annual American Time Use Survey, the average amount of time we spent shopping dipped from 5.5 to 5.0 hours per week between 2007 and 2012. During that same period, the amount of time spent we sleeping increased slightly (from 60 to 61 hours per week), as did television viewing (from 18.3 to 19.3 hours per week).

So feeling less rushed “may just reflect how Americans generally adapt by being less active in periods of severe economic downturn,” he writes.

“More worrisome,” he adds, “is the possibility that … the pace of life has progressed to the point that Americans may not have even noticed how much more hectic daily life has become.”

Either way, it’s worth noting that the percentage of Americans who call themselves “very happy” is also on the decline. This number stayed steady at around 33 percent of the population through the last three decades of the 20th century. But in the 2010 General Social Survey, “it dropped 5 points to 28 percent—its lowest level reported,” Robinson writes.

(We’re talking here about self-reported happiness; in the General Social Survey, people are asked whether they feel “very, somewhat, or not” happy. Robinson notes that their answer has been shown to closely track with other variables that determine one’s quality of life, including self-esteem, optimism and life satisfaction.)

So, feeling less rushed does not automatically increase happiness; if it did, those numbers would be moving in tandem, rather than in opposite directions. Rather, Robinson writes, surveys “continue to show the least happy group to be those who quite often have excess time.”

Boredom, it seems, is burdensome.

As noted earlier, a specific subgroup reports the greatest satisfaction: People who don’t feel rushed, but also report little or more “excess time.” Their high levels of happiness held steady even after a long list of demographic factors was taken into account, including marriage, age, education, race and gender.

Clearly, there’s much to be said for living a productive life at a comfortable pace.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.