In the ‘80s, the slogan was, “Don’t Worry, Get Happy.” Fast-forward to 2011, and the slogan should be “Get Moving, Get Rest, Get Happy.” Granted, it may not have quite the same punch, but apparently it’s pretty accurate.
According to Dutch researchers, the key to happiness is in a combination of social, physical and cognitive activities, paired with rest. Oh, and fewer household chores. Let me explain.
How Do You Measure Happiness?
There have been several studies that have tried to determine what makes a person happy or unhappy. And in each case, the first question is, “How on earth do you measure happiness?” Some explain it with personality traits, while others use questionnaires.
And how are you defining happiness? Hysterical giggling? Satisfaction with one’s life? Overall psychological well-being?
For this study, researchers defined happiness as “a pleasurable and mildly activated emotional state experienced during everyday activities.” And to measure happiness, they chose a day reconstruction method (DRM).
This involves sending the participant a monthly email with a link to an online diary. This electronic diary is created and based on the day reconstruction method. When filling it out, participants are asked to recount the previous day’s activities. They list what time they started an activity, when they stopped, and then rated their level of happiness during each activity.
Because activity-related happiness is short-lived and fluctuates, the DRM is a great way to accurately capture situational happiness.
All Activities Are Not Created Equal
Once they knew what they were looking for, researchers had to determine what specific activities they were interested in monitoring. For this, they looked to past research which have shown that “‘social activities’ often leave people feeling connected, recognized, and valued,” while “‘physical activities’ relate to a sense of mastery or personal achievement, which translates into feeling good about oneself.”
Additionally, “‘Cognitive activities’ may either satisfy the need for competence or satisfy one’s curiosity.” And on the flip side, “‘household activities’ appear to be detrimental to psychological well-being.”
Based on this, researchers chose to evaluate four types of activities:
- Social (time spent with friends and/or family)
- Physical (exercise, walking, dancing, physical exertion)
- Cognitive (learning, brain and word games, playing cards, studying)
- Household (laundry, cleaning, shopping, cooking, bill paying)
Researchers also wanted to know if taking a break from activity, kind of an effort/recovery model, would affect happiness. So they measured for that too.
They called it “physical passivity,” and defined it as “restful activities involving almost no physical effort.” This included watching TV, napping, surfing the Internet or relaxing in general.
But What About …
Researchers then added in one more piece: personality. They hypothesized that if social activities are a good predictor of happiness, then extroverts who seek out social situations are likely happier than introverts. They also pointed out that extroverts are “more sensitive to signals of reward in social situations,” and may derive greater satisfaction and happiness from being social.
Therefore, they hypothesized that being an extrovert creates the positive relationship between being social and being happy. And to determine extroversion, they asked participants if they saw themselves as extraverted and enthusiastic or reserved and quiet.
They then did something interesting. They controlled for the neurotics, which has been shown to be inversely related to happiness. To determine neuroticism, they asked participants if they saw themselves as anxious and easily upset or as calm and emotionally stable.
It may seem that in the extroversion and neuroticism questions, people would gravitate toward calling themselves “enthusiastic” and “emotionally stable” even if they were not. But the researchers found that there was an “acceptable level of reliability for the two-item measure” in both cases.
Putting It All Together
Researchers worked with a group of 585 retired seniors from the Netherlands who were ages 55 to 88. All participants received a monthly email with the link to the online diary every month for two years.
Researchers then chose to include those participants who completed the diary at least six times in the two-year period. This narrowed the pool to 438 participants.
They found that the more time the participants engaged in social, cognitive and physical activities, the happier they reported being. And, as you can imagine, the more time they spent doing household chores, the unhappier they were.
They also found that frequent participation in social, physical and cognitive activities were positively related to happiness when combined with frequent periods of restful activities. What was interesting was that when little time was spent on restful activity, there was not significant association with physical or cognitive activity. But there continued to be a correlation with social activity.
When it came to rest and chores, the findings were intriguing. There was no significant correlation between happiness and time spent on household activities and lots of time resting. BUT, there was an inverse relationship when you looked at chores and little time spent resting. This created significant unhappiness.
And, when it came to personality, being an extrovert definitely related to happiness. Specifically, they found that extroverts tend to be happier and tend to participate in more social activities. Additionally, extroverts do seem to derive greater pleasure from social activity than their introverted peers.
Researchers concluded, “This study sheds more light on which kind of daily lifestyle contributes to the happiness of retired seniors… seniors can enhance the happiness they experience beyond their baseline level by engaging in social, physical, and cognitive activities.”
Participate in Life!
In a nutshell, this study shows that being an active participant in your own life is critical to your overall happiness. While you can’t necessarily avoid bills and laundry, you can make time for a little fun and learning.
Combine social and physical activities by joining a walking club or trying ballroom dancing. You can also join a bridge group or get a weekly poker game going. The point is to do something fun, engaging and new every day. Don’t worry, you’ll be happy!
 Oerlemans, WG et al. Finding the key to happy aging: A day reconstruction study of happiness. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2011 Jul 1. [Epub ahead of print]
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 Demerouti, E et al. Daily recovery from work-related effort during non-work time. In S. Sonnentag, PL Perrewe & DC Ganster (Eds.). Current perspectives on job-stess recovery: Research in occupational stress and well being (Vol. 7, pp 85-123). Bingley, UK: JAI Press.
 Gosling, D et al. A very brief measure of the big-five personality domains. J Res Pers. 2003;37:504-28.