Sure, weekends are for relaxing, but it can turn into too much of a good thing. Eating and drinking in excess or watching hours of TV might sound like good ideas at the end of a long week, but they have negative physical and psychological consequences. Writer Eric Barker lays out the best ways to make your weekend happy and healthy.
Title image illustrated by Dominick Rabrun.
For The Most Part, Don't Trust Your Instincts
Ever eat or drink too much, feel awful, then do it again... and feel awful again? As counterintuitive as it may sound, we're actually pretty bad about remembering what really makes us happy.
Reading Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert's bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness my main takeaway was this: Much of our unhappiness springs from the fact that we're terrible at accurately remembering how things made us feel in the past, so we make bad choices regarding the future.
In Gilbert's own words (and backed up by many studies):
We overestimate how happy we will be on our birthdays, we underestimate how happy we will be on Monday mornings, and we make these mundane but erroneous predictions again and again, despite their regular disconfirmation.
When most of us have leisure time, do we do what truly makes us happy or do we opt for what's easy? Easy wins it most of the time.
Studies have found that teenagers are two and half times more likely to experience elevated enjoyment when engaged in a hobby than when watching TV and three times more likely when playing a sport. And yet here's the paradox: These same teenagers spend four times as many hours watching TV as they do engaging in sports or hobbies. So what gives? Or, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it more eloquently, "Why would we spend four times more time doing something that has less than half the chance of making us feel good?"
The answer is that we are drawn -- powerfully, magnetically -- to those things that are easy, convenient and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia. Active leisure is more enjoyable, but it almost always requires more initial effort-getting the bike out of the garage, driving to the museum, tuning the guitar, and so on. (via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work)
The things we frequently choose to reduce stress are often the least effective:
The APA's national survey on stress found that the most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them. For example, only 16 per cent of people who eat to reduce stress report that it actually helps them. Another study found that women are most likely to eat chocolate when they are feeling anxious or depressed, but the only reliable change in mood they experience from their drug of choice is an increase in guilt. (via "The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It)
So What Works?
Spending time with friends on the weekends definitely helps: a large portion of the weekend's effects is explained by differences in the amount of time spent with friends or family between weekends and weekdays (7.1 vs. 5.4 hours). The extra daily social time of 1.7 hours in weekends raises average happiness by about two per cent.
But you knew that already. What are we missing?
Research shows that "mastery experiences" are also key to helping people recover from the work week. So what's that mean? Doing stuff you're good at and trying to get better. Maybe that sounds like "work" to some people but research shows we're happier when we're busy, mind-wandering makes us unhappy and watching TV for too long is depressing.
Mastering a skill is stressful in the moment but makes us happier in the long term.
People who deliberately exercised their signature strengths on a daily basis -- those qualities they were uniquely best at, the talents that set them apart from others -- became significantly happier for months.
When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full months later.
Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become. (via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work)
This has been shown repeatedly in research studies. So practice a skill this weekend! Do what you're good at and get better. Become an expert.
What Else Works?
There are other things that help us decompress:
...the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga and spending time with a creative hobby. The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet and watching TV or movies for more than two hours. (via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It)
And wouldn't it be great to have some luck this weekend? Luck isn't magic. It's been studied and there's a science behind it. The secret to being luckier is to be open to more opportunities, to interact with a large network of people, to break routines, and keep a relaxed attitude toward life.
The Week Isn't That Bad
Studies show the saddest day of the week is actually Sunday. The research is pretty consistent -- Mondays are never that bad and Fridays aren't that great. So why do we still not like Mondays? Because you're focused about how you predict you'll feel, not how you actually feel in the moment.
If you are dependent on your weekends to bring you happiness, you may want to look for another job. Studies show that people with good careers don't experience as much of a boost on the weekends -- because they don't need to. Weekends make much less difference for people who work in open and trusting environments. They simply exchange one set of friends for another on weekends.
How can you make your weekends more awesome? [Bakadesuyo]
Eric Barker writes to understand why we do what we do and to use the answers to become more awesome at life. Bakadesuyo is on the blogrolls at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Eric's Wired Magazine columns are here, and you can email him here.