If you could plan out a perfect day, what would it look like?
Two researchers explored that question in a study, “Developing a Happiness-Optimized Day Schedule,” published in the Journal of Economic Psychology. The researchers, Christian Kroll and Sebastian Pokutta, took data on how a large number of women spent a typical day and how much they enjoyed each activity. Then they had some fun with the numbers.
Subtracting 8 hours for sleep, they were left with 16 hours to divide up, minute by minute, into a day that would offer the most pleasure and satisfaction. Here is what they came up with:
Some journalists joked about these oddly precise numbers. Simon Kelner asks whether a perfect day is different for men (likely answer: yes) and recalls Lou Reed drinking sangria in the park in his classic song.
But the researchers’ method actually makes sense. They write, “Our research asks what a perfect day would look like if we take into account the crucial fact that even the most pleasurable activities are usually less enjoyable the longer they last and the more often we do them.”
Imagine doing a jigsaw puzzle for twelve hours straight. If you like jigsaw puzzles, you would enjoy the first hour or two, especially if you don’t do jigsaws every day. But over time it would get way less fun.
Using that idea, the researchers took 16 common activities and allotted a number of minutes to each one, so that the last minute of each offered an equal amount of happiness. The more pleasurable the activity, the longer it took for the pleasure to diminish enough to match the others.
True, anyone who tried to follow the suggested schedule would go berserk. That wasn’t the authors’ intention! It’s a thought experiment: a way to think about what’s most important for an individual or a society. As the researchers point out, their computation “differs considerably from how people usually spend their time.”
If I use myself as a test case, I ask: Only 36 minutes of working? Fortunately, I love my work. I hope my perception of pleasure throughout a whole day of seeing patients is not an illusion. And 56 minutes of shopping? That’s not at all attractive to me as a daily activity.
But the study encourages us to be intentional with what we do with our precious time. The six activities at the top of the list, which the women enjoyed the most—intimacy, socializing, relaxing, eating (eating well, we hope), praying or meditating, exercising—are all vital to health in body or mind. We can think of each one as a different color thread, and make sure to weave them all through our days—with intentional planning of time for our relationships, for example.
We will be happier, and so will the people we love.