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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

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