The Surprising Path to a Happy Everyday Life

What would be the happiest day we could design? It’s an interesting question with large potential implications for how well we live our lives. More precisely, how should we split our time between various activities to maximize happiness and well-being?

A fascinating 2013 study (summarized here) by Christian Kroll and Sebastian Pokutta attempts to answer this by taking data from a 2003 survey of 900 employed Texan women where they were asked to rate how various activities during the day made them feel, and then calculating at what point the marginal utility of time spent on each activity is equal, i.e. when the last minute of each activity increases reported happiness by the same amount. The idea is that we will be happier if we spend more time on activities we enjoy to the extent we enjoy them more, which seems sound enough.

Applying a logarithmic utility function, usually the best match to people’s actual views, they arrived at some rather startling conclusions. According to this theory, happiness, at least as reported by these 900 Texan women, would be maximized by a daily schedule of 106 minutes of “intimate relations”, presumably consisting of sex and lovemaking, 82 minutes of socializing, 78 minutes of relaxing, 73 minutes of prayer, worship, or meditation, 75 minutes of eating, 68 minutes of exercising, 55 minutes of watching television, 56 minutes of shopping, 50 minutes of preparing food, 57 minutes of talking on the phone, 46 minutes of napping, 46 minutes of taking care of their children, 48 minutes of working on computers, the Internet, and emails, 47 minutes of housework, 36 minutes of working, and 33 minutes of commuting.

The interesting Ways People find Pleasure

The researchers were struck by how equal the time spent on each activity was compared to these women’s actual schedules, but what strikes me is how much time this suggests people devote to lovemaking and prayer. They seem to be among the most enjoyable activities for most people. There is also a notable percentage of the day devoted to eating; about two hours is devoted to eating and preparing food. Perhaps “Eat, Pray, Love” is a path to happiness after all.

I find it interesting that commuting, demonized as the bane of workers’ existence, is roughly as enjoyable as working outside the home itself is, though this daily schedule only devotes 16 minutes each way, which is less than the average commute. The small degree to which people enjoy working is no surprise; it seems that women get their fill of working outside the home after half an hour or so. This amount of time probably would be enough for women to feel like they’re doing something important outside the home and feel like they’re contributing but not so much of it that they get sick of it.

Notable is that employed women apparently enjoy housework more than they do working outside the home; this study recommends somewhat more time be spent on housework than outside work. So much for women finding work outside the home so  much more fulfilling! In all fairness, I’m sure a similar study of men would find they don’t enjoy working much either, though it’s fair guess they would like more outside work and less housework than women.

Of course this study is just an average. It would likely make more sense to go to work one day a week for four hours at a stretch than work seven days a week for half an hour a day; that way you would only need to make that 33 minute round trip once, and you could save that driving time for doing that 82 minutes of socializing you should be doing every day in different settings outside the home during the other six days of the week.

Lighting the Way toward happy Motherhood?

46 minutes of taking care of their children might seem low, but is probably roughly right to maximize happiness, assuming this is direct face-to-face contact with the children with undivided attention devoted to them, and excludes their participation in other activities like that two hours a day devoted to food. As fulfilling as childbearing is for women, a lot of the work is drudgery that brings little satisfaction.

It is also worth noting that although it is best for children for their mother to always be there for them, children past infancy will if left to their own devices be playing by themselves or next to their mothers most of the time, or will be roaming either alone or with friends or siblings outside exploring the world that is still so new to them. So even for mothers who want to always be there for their children, the amount of actual time that needs to be devoted to what timekeepers call “child care” is actually rather small.

Happiness would almost certainly be maximized if mothers could savor all the pleasurable moments with their children but avoid the drudgery. Hiring a full-time nanny is the most efficient way to do this; unlike sending children off to a daycare center or school the children will still be there for their mothers to enjoy, so it stands to reason lives will be much better with this arrangement. As it turns out, this is basically how many mothers of the upper class live their lives. The difference is that they have the means to outsource their chores and it is culturally seen as normal, in contrast to the middle class view that if you don’t do all your own chores you’re lazy or deficient.

Outsourcing Housework: the Key to marital Bliss?

In fact the same technique if applied to all chores, not just those related to children, can apparently greatly increase happiness. A 2018 working paper from Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia (summarized here) found that a quarter of divorcing couples cited disagreements over housework as the primary cause of their divorce. The paper highlights a series of studies that have found that couples that devote more of their household income to outsourcing housework have happier marriages. This is an extension of a more general principle of spending money to save time, which is one of the best investments in personal well-being a person can make, yet most participants in these studies don’t report spending any money in this way at all.

This suggests that widespread adoption of this principle would greatly improve the lives of a very large number of people. This is particularly true given that modern middle class culture prizes both doing all of your own chores and, in the name of equality, making sure they are split evenly between husband and wife regardless of what each person actually wants. This naturally leads to much greater marital discord and a greater amount of time devoted to unpleasant work, compounded by both husbands and wives working outside the home, meaning these chores must be done in the mornings and evenings, precisely the time a breadwinner would be available to spend quality time with the one he or she loves. In fact, it is speculated that the primary benefit of outsourcing housework is more quality time between husband and wife, which ties into the other study’s result that 106 minutes is the best amount of time for lovemaking.

More Children, more Happiness?

Another interesting result this ties into is that both an Edith Cowan University study and a Redbook survey (summarized here) found that mothers with four or more children are the happiest, much more satisfied with their lives than mothers of one or two children. This is probably in part because the marginal love and joy is about the same for a fourth child but the marginal unpleasantness is lower than it is for a first child. Unfortunately there is little research out there on larger family sizes; one would think that there is a point where a happy medium is reached between more joy and more children than the mother knows what to do with, but it is uncertain where that is. I would offer a guess that it might be in the 4-6 children range often seen as the average in hunter-gatherer bands, but that could easily be wrong.

Theoretically, the happiest mothers should be those that have at least four children raised in a more-or-less free-range fashion and outsource the housework, excepting perhaps less than an hour a day reserved for themselves, and unpleasant child care tasks. This, once again, is particularly common among the upper class. It is interesting to note that the upper class probably do have higher fertility rates than the middle class, bucking the normal sterilizing effect of wealth, though it isn’t a very large difference.

The upper class being more rural and less educated than the uppermost middle class is another factor. Yes, that sounds odd, but 80% of the Forbes 400, the uppermost upper class, have bachelor’s degrees or higher credentials (and that’s actually down from a decade ago due to a greater number of less-credentialed tech billionaires joining the list); while that figure is much higher than it is for the general population, consider that well over 90% of adults in homogeneously upper middle class neighborhoods in places like northern Virginia have them. All the upper class’s rural estates cause them to skew much more rural in living habits than the uppermost middle class, the vast majority of whom live in suburbs or gentrified cities. Even the upper class’s urban penthouses tend to be very spacious, and likely mitigate density’s negative effect on fertility.

Stoking the Hearthflames

Now, back to the topic of pathways to everyday happiness, 106 minutes of “intimate relations” might seem a lot, and it is; the women in the Texas survey reported only 7 minutes a day of intimacy. It gets even better; according to the hedonic utility function they should be spending 619 minutes, or an incredible ten and a half hours, on sex and lovemaking every day. Offhand this seems like far too much, and indeed the logarithmic function has been found to match people’s actual preferences much better. Nevertheless, even for married couples two hours of sex and lovemaking per day might seem unachievable or even undesirable.

This is not necessarily the case. Anecdotally, it is shockingly common for married couples, even ones in relatively frigid relationships, to work themselves up to such a level if they make a concerted effort to do so. Making yourself as pretty, handsome, presentable, put-together, and well-dressed as possible when you present yourself to your lover, i.e. making an effort, is a method sure to help that is often neglected by married couples. A method as simple as the fifteen-second kiss has been found to kindle the fires of lust if done at least once a day. Small changes and small escalations add up over time.

At the extreme, it is remarkably common for those in “taken in hand” relationships, where there is a deliberate effort for the wife to obey the husband while the husband puts his wife and the relationship first, to report a great increase in libido, even where no spark previously existed at all. Particularly common is the wife’s libido matching her husband’s over time. To use the Taoist expression, men are like fire, women are like water. Feminine submission in particular works as well as it does because most men are more dominant and most women are more submissive. Although there are significant numbers of dominant women and submissive men out there, for whom it would be better to flip each sex’s role, for the vast majority a more traditional relationship style is best.

This lovemaking doesn’t have to be all in one stretch, though; there is a school of thought that says physical intimacy every morning and evening is best, and it can of course be spread around the day, particularly if there is only on average half an hour of working outside the home. This compares to four hours for the sample of women surveyed in Texas.

Combining Activities for even happier Living

In the 2013 study, the women reported exercising only 7 minutes every day, compared to an optimal time of 68 minutes. They got in about the optimal amount of socializing, at about 80 minutes a day. In principle, some of these activities could be combined. For example, going to an exercise class, a yoga group, or a social dance could easily combine socializing and exercising. The suggested combined time in the study is two and a half hours a day. Talking on the phone is also a form of socializing, and it’s reasonable to assume in-person socializing if feasible would be more fulfilling. This brings the total to three and a half hours.

Again, the upper class is instructive here, with social calendars traditionally often including a very heavy schedule of parties and balls that went on for hours. Without co-workers to chat with all day, these sort of events could become much more common, and it would be a much more satisfying way to socialize. Hosting people you know at your home is another excellent way to socialize, particularly for more introverted people, and this form of socializing perhaps most famously was particularly common among the English gentry in the time of Jane Austen.

It is worth noting that the half hour spent working every day could be accounted for by being an instructor or coach at these physical and social hobbies such as dance, yoga, and exercise. This would bring the combined optimal total to four hours a day; it’s interesting that these sort of jobs seem to be quite popular, and are currently growing rapidly.

Another combination that might be possible is watching television and working on the computer, since so much media now is consumed online compared to the early 2000s, combining for 103 minutes a day in the optimal schedule.

Under-rated Activities for a happier Life

Another glaring deficiency is praying, meditating, and worshiping, with an optimal time of 73 minutes compared to an actual time of 14 minutes. It is interesting how much the women in the Texas sample seemed to like this activity; it ranked fourth on the list. Since the optimal time would require an eight hour religious service to do it in one stretch once a week, praying and meditating should account for most of this time. An hour a day praying might seem like a bit much, but monks in the Christian tradition easily accomplish that, so some inspiration could be taken from them.

Another way to greatly improve happiness is to travel and take vacations. Vacationing and leisure travel in general has a very large and positive effect on health, happiness, and well-being, and perhaps not coincidentally is another activity more commonly indulged in by the upper class.

A glaring deficiency in women’s days is shopping. The optimal time according to the 2013 study is 56 minutes, but women only spend 14 minutes a day shopping on average. This is true to stereotype, but in all fairness to the women there are activities they like better than shopping, and it does appear to be good for them. They might want to tighten their belts, though, since with all that money they’re spending on traveling and outsourcing the housework under this plan they might not have as much left over to shop with. One thing they might want to splurge on, though, is clothing.

Happy Living through Beauty, Art, and Nature

Good-looking, well-fitted clothing with a put-together look is indulged in by the upper class but is extremely under-rated in improving well-being. Feeling presentable and beautiful, even in the absence of anyone watching you, makes you happier and more confident. Dressing up even at home might be very wise. For women, the use of cosmetics has a similar effect. To get that two hours of lovemaking a day all that dressing up and making up will likely prove essential. Beautifying yourself is far more important to happiness than is usually believed; even going so far as to get surgery to augment the breasts is very pleasing to those women who go to the trouble.

Perhaps less common, at least consciously, is seeking out and creating a green, verdant, natural, outdoor-style environment for yourself. The positive effect on health and well-being green space has is very large and by now well-documented; just looking at a verdant landscape out a window has been shown to improve well-being. Situating yourself and the activities you do in nature, or at least with a view of it and with fresh air blowing in, will greatly improve your life.

Lastly, artistic and creative hobbies were not surveyed, but among those who pursue them they should rank rather highly on the list of enjoyable activities, so a good portion of the day should be devoted to them. For some, such as dancers, this could overlap with exercising, but for most this would be a separate activity that would need to be accounted for.

Conclusion

The takeaway of all this is that for happiness and well-being a lot more time should be spent on exercising, praying, shopping, and especially intimate relations, and a lot less time should be spent working. Household spending should tilt much more heavily toward travel, vacationing, apparel, beauty, and outsourcing chores. All this should be done in a natural environment with plenty of fresh air.

This looks rather different from the kind of lifestyle most are leading or are being encouraged to lead now. In particular the emphasis on careers as opposed to marriage (by far the most realistic way to get two hours of intimate relations every day) as the focus of one’s life is curious, considering that for most people their marriage and their prospects for finding love are much more important.

Admittedly careers are important for practical reasons, but beyond a small amount of time per day it detracts from happiness and well-being. The practical implication is that pursuing financial independence through investing, the building and growing of a portfolio of investments large enough to sustain one’s lifestyle without the need for working, might be one of the best uses of earnings from conventional careers for most people. After the traveling, vacationing, beautifying, and outsourcing the house chores are paid for perhaps the rest should be invested.

Financial independence thus really should be a mass movement instead of the preserve of a small community of bloggers. Let the flood of investment capital go toward improving the productivity of those exceptional people who like working more than any other activity, and let them put in most of the labor. Following your passions is often derided as bad career advice, but is it not merely the economic logic of specialization, comparative advantage, and the rational pursuit of one’s goals taken to its ultimate conclusion when applied across all of life? Interesting thought.

All this suggests that people might be a lot happier with a life that is situated in a natural environment and is much more focused on sex, lovemaking, marriage, childbearing, travel, vacationing, exercise, prayer, meditation, art, creation, and beauty. Perhaps you could try marginal changes in your life toward this goal and see how it turns out; if these rather reasonable ideas are correct you might like your life considerably better.

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