Why Most People are Happier Working than in Their Free Time


Are you happier when you’re working, or when you have time off?

Easy answer right? We work in order to have free time. Everything from basic economics to our deepest intuitions tells us that we must be happiest during our free time.

Turns out we were wrong.

Flow, Flipped Intuitions and A Scientist’s Name You Can’t Pronounce

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi did careful research that discovered that some of our deepest intuitions about work, play and what makes us happy were completely backwards.

He discovered that most people were, in fact, happier at work than at rest. More, he found that people tended to think they were happier in their free time, and would choose to have more free time than work, even though it made them unhappier.

How did Csíkszentmihályi find this?

He did it by having study participants keep pagers (then a new technology) that would go off at random intervals of the day. During those intervals, study participants would not only record what they were doing, but also their emotional state in the current moment.

By adding up this data, he reached the surprising conclusion: people were happier at work, even though they didn’t realize it.

Why You’re Happier at Work

Csíkszentmihályi’s answer to this question was based on the concept of flow. In his research, this is the optimal state of human experience. It is attained when working towards a challenge that perfectly meets our skill level, engaging every mental faculty without overwhelming us.

This state of flow, because it requires both challenge and the application of skill, is more commonly attained at work than during relaxation. As a result, people report higher levels of well-being at work.

Why Free Time Makes Most People Unhappy

Our drives don’t match up perfectly with our reality. We are motivated to relax, but relaxing itself doesn’t create the experience of flow. As a result, we strive to find more free time, even though we tend to use it on passive activities that never allow us to enter flow.

The Solution Isn’t to Become a Workaholic

I don’t believe the solution is simply to work more. Although that may fit within Csíkszentmihályi’s research, I do believe there is a good reason why people avoid work even though they are happier when working.

I believe that reason is commitments. Commitments are often necessary to be accomplished and productive. Without some pressure, either external or internal, it’s likely I never would have built this business, stayed in shape or attended classes.

However, commitments have a psychic toll on us. If you followed the findings I presented above, and turned yourself into a workaholic, you may feel flow more often. Or you may end up a burned-out wreck, one step closer to an asylum.

I’ve experienced this road personally. As I wrote in this article, I made the mistake of confusing the flow-induced happiness of work with adding extra commitments. I survived, but I ended up becoming less accomplished, more stressed and considerably less happy.

Commit to Less, Engage in Mastery More

But Csíkszentmihályi’s research never suggested adding more commitments. His findings simply indicated that people tend to be happier at work because that environment was more conducive to flow.

The solution, I will argue, has nothing to do with working more. Instead, it has to do with designing your free time so that you have more opportunities for flow.

Noncommittal Mastery

Noncommittal mastery is the process of engaging in intense learning and skill-building environments. Ones where the challenge of the activity and your skill are always in equilibrium. However, you engage in those elements without any outside pressure and little internal pressure.

I’ve been using this approach for some time now, and recently I’ve been trying to apply it more deliberately. I recently wrote here about how the noncommittal path to mastery is how I’m pursuing bodyweight fitness. I’ve also been using it to improve my cooking, bicycling, graphic design, computer programming and reading.

In my experience, I’ve found noncommittal mastery tends to achieve less and more slowly than intense commitments. That is, my business projects tend to progress faster and more consistently than my bodyweight fitness training, because I have added pressure.

But, when you’re designing your free time, accomplishment isn’t the point–flow is. And if, by pursuing noncommittal mastery, I get to have more interesting flow experiences without adding new stress, I’ve succeeded.

How to Create Mastery as a Side Dish

Another way to explain noncommittal mastery is mastery as a side dish. Instead of the main course (your biggest focus in life) it is an addition that can be equally enjoyable without becoming an obligation.

I’ve experimented with two ways to incorporate side-mastery into my life. One, which I’ve found usually fails. And a second which works much better.

The mistaken way to add mastery into your life is to create more pressure to do it. When you tell yourself you “should” start cooking more elaborate meals, learn to write fiction or read difficult books.

Unfortunately the “should” method tends to turn the otherwise fun activity into a mild commitment. Instead of being free time it starts to feel a bit like work. The psychic toll of pursuing the activity goes up and your desire to pursue it freely goes down. This is not the way.

A better, but less obvious, way to integrate more side dishes of mastery into your life is to reduce the barriers to play. Instead of creating pressure, you reduce all the obstacles that make you less likely to pursue noncommittal mastery and more likely to waste time in passive activities that leave you less happy.

Removing the Obstacles to Enjoyment

One way you can remove obstacles is to integrate the mastery-seeking activity into your current routine.

Bodyweight training was an easy integration for me because I’d already established the habit of going to the gym several times per week. Cooking became easier to pursue once I got the right tools and ingredients. I’ve written before that biking is facilitated by my current city.

Another way you can remove obstacles is to get past the frustration barrier. By taking an introductory course in yoga, dance or French cuisine, you can get to the part where applying the skill is actually fun.

Or simply make the mastery-seeking activity more available. One way I’ve been able to read more books per year? Always have books to read on my desk. Always having one or two good books in the to-read pile ensures I always have the chance to practice.

Why Following this Advice Means Rejecting Your Intuitions

My proposed solutions of noncommittal mastery and removing obstacles are just my experiences. You can discount them as anecdote if you disagree with me, just as you can discount most of my rants and opinions in this blog.

However, Csíkszentmihályi’s research isn’t opinion. It isn’t anecdote. It’s scientific research that has a more surprising conclusion than I would ever attempt to thrust upon you: that most people are less happy in their free time.

To all the people that reject the concept of active leisure, and believe the happiest life is the passive, relaxed one, I ask you to question your intuitions. Because the research says otherwise.

Perhaps, like I did, you’ll discover it isn’t the activity you want to avoid but the commitment. And you may find that the most enjoyable moments of life aren’t the easiest or least exerting, but those completely engaged in play.

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    I’m on the same page with you here. I agree with this one thing I heard about happiness saying that the key to it is to have a fulfilling duty or job to perform, and the ability and time to perform it. Free time is not really a challenging or successful use of our time like fulfilling work time.

    This has quite a bit of relevance for those who seek loads of free time, thinking it is the real goal.

  • BHud

    I’ve thought a lot about this subject, in regards to happiness and looking at my life and my friend’s/family member’s lives. I think something that keeps all humans engaged and excited is the pursuit of goals. Work provides a consistent amount of these, whether its making the sales call or working on communication with your boss. However, when we leave work, goals arent as easy to identify in our personal life. I know this is why I waste a lot of time watching TV. I think the concept of flow helps us understand how to set the right type of goals, and what to look for in our work towards goals.

  • Ben Weston

    Great article Scott!

    This remind me of The Four Hour Work Week. The goal isn’t to have loads of free time so that you can relax on a beach and just rub coco butter all over yourself all day (done it, gets boring after 5 minutes). The goal is to free up your time to do things that excite you. For me, just having free time is rather paralyzing.

    I like your idea about “mastery as a side dish”. I think I may try that with learning how to dance. Thanks for the tips!

    Take care,

  • Mr. Self Development

    Wow…What a concept…thanks for sharing this research and your thoughts! This makes sense…

  • Steven Aitchison

    Hi Scott, this is a great article and I totally understand what Csíkszentmihályi’s research found. I am definitely happiest when I am working toward a goal and I always have something to work on. I love your idea of Mastery as a side dish – could be the next ebook 🙂

  • Karen

    This was an interesting read. I had not heard of those studies before, so thanks for sharing. Having a purpose while at work is really important, which is why so many people who finally retire after working their entire lives die soon afterwards if they don’t have something to fill that vacuum. People need to be feel needed and working does that. I’m making it a point to be more ‘in the flow’ at work.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article.


  • kripssmart


    I partially agree with your point about psychic pressure but I think I can’t agree completely with your way of creating mastery as a side dish.. Because mostly its that pressure that drives us to reach the goal.. I believe deadlines do matter! … So, a better way would be to teach your mind not to get overwhelmed with this pressure!

  • Ryan

    I really like your idea of removing the obstacles to enjoyment. Pressure is the best way for me to get work done, but I do not need more pressure/stress. Reducing barriers to accomplish personal goals makes great sense. I think reaching these personal goals, hitting “flow” without outside pressure is something few people know how to do. It also seems like a process that you can learn to improve.

    Thanks for the interesting article.

  • Scott Young


    I’m not arguing that pressure isn’t important (or even unnecessary). When you have a major focus (say your career, or a key goal in life) then that should and often must require internal pressure to move you towards it. I use pressure all the time to get myself to work towards my key goals.

    The question here is: since we cannot work all the time (or shouldn’t, at least), how can we engineer our free time so it offers the same potential for flow without the stress.


  • Steve-Success Factors

    Scott, very interesting article. I sometimes have felt guilty that I enjoy being at work even more than I enjoy my ‘free’ time. I have a family, so I think that by re-framing my free time as a commitment to mastering the skill of becoming a more excellent husband and father, I can enjoy that free time further. Also, I use a lot of my free time to pursue my passions of blogging on different subjects that I wish to attain mastery in, so when I am involved in that, I am experiencing flow. However, sometimes being a little less than happy during down time is not so bad: I get some relaxation in, and it makes me more grateful to go back to work later 🙂

  • Lauren

    Hi Scott,

    This post was a complete surprise to me until I really thought about it. I think part of the reason people may be happier at work is because you have a purpose and a goal and you tend to stay busy. In that respect, I totally agree with BHud’s earlier comment. The opportunity for accomplishments is large at work and you are more likely to faces challenges you can’t avoid so it’s natural to grow and learn. Free time won’t present the same opportunities unless you allow it to. I love your idea about learning something new like yoga and using your skills in different, fun ways. Thanks for the great post.


  • K. van Lent

    Thanks very much Scott!
    Keep on the fantastic work!

    Much love!

  • Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot

    Just discovered you via your excellent guest post on ZH. Congrats on that and on your exam success.

    It’s a bit sad that people prefer work to play. But hopefully a reflection on how much people love their jobs. I think you can find flow in plenty of non-work related activites. For example, surfing, learning a language, many sports anything that engages your brain 100% and stops you from getting bored.

    Anyway, it’s great to “meet” you out here in the blogosphere. I look forward to seeing you around. Amuse toi en France!

  • Dave

    This is an interesting article with some excellent thoughts but I question the fundamental premise. See:


    Whether the premise is right or wrong, the concept of flow is still very useful when it comes to seeking out work we enjoy and structuring the work we have.

  • Scott Young


    That’s really interesting, I hadn’t read that report.

    You’re right, though, that the headlining statement of this article isn’t the real point. That flow matters, and how an unintentional lack of it can deprive us.


  • JohnnyBiggles

    Great article and great research. Here’s food for thought, though: The reason why SO many people are miserable today is because of the LACK of challenge they need on their job- which would explain the overall state of mind of people across the U.S. I recently saw a statistic (Sept. 2009), where 1 out of every 2 workers has been with their current employer 5 yrs. or less, while 1 out of 4 workers is with their current employer 1 yr. or less. Even for those who still have a job, I’d ballpark it at about 75% or better of ALL those employees feel they are somewhat or very unsatisfied- financially and/or by workload or work performed, so people are ready to abandon and move on to the next in search of that balanced challenge they seek and need to be happy. With all that instability, people are far from the equilibrium of doing what they love and loving what they do; therefore, it’s harder for people to be happy at all nowdays, even while working. “Free time” seems to only be worthwhile if you have a plethora of money and a detailed gameplan for relaxing with it. At any rate, “free time” and all you do with it can be expensive!

  • Craig Thomas

    Nice post. I work in my free time – I love my work and I tend to be a rather happy chappy. 🙂

  • Victor

    His last name is pronounced in English Cheek-Sent-Me-Hi-Ye.

    I have a Hungarian friend

  • shreevidya

    Yes, I totally agree with you. As you mentioned in your blog- serious fun is more productive.

  • Blue Magick Dogg

    This is a great article, and I appreciate the tips you give to overcoming obstacles. I’ve recently decided to delve into the topic of flow psychology after watching a friend help her depression with paint-by-number projects. She would tell me how she lost track of time and forgot that she was hungry. (She has been battling with weight gain all her life). Looking forward to more of your posts.

  • Joe Public

    Work for me is just a source of income so I can enjoy myself on my spare time. I like my job, but I wouldn’t break my back backwards working say, 16 hours a day. Then I’d quit and find another job. Bosses and/or workaholics will probably spit on this comment, but we’re all different.

  • Carrie

    Interesting article. Gave me a new perspective on happiness . Thank you!

  • Esra Gunen

    Amazing article again!
    I was just reading the book called “Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and in that book the same name “Csíkszentmihályi” and his research on artists was mentioned as artists who just want to paint and express themselves well; comparing to the artists who just want to be famous or concern about the price of their art work. According to his research, first group is much more creative and tend to be more conductive to flow than the second group.
    So I think, not to concern about the future or the past but to focus on “being in now” may actually works. =)

  • Evie

    TOTALLY agree with this…as much as work can overwhelm and stress me at times, I find it to be the backbone to my happiness as I am experiencing little achievements and fulfilling purpose throughout the day which is rewarding…and when I have days off to relax and even travel, I can often feel bored, sad, unmotivated and have too much time to think negative thoughts. I think the ideal way to happiness is to work part-time or 4 days a week so that you have enough time to recover and feel healthy and energised enough to handle work…because if you go too far with working then you become ill and unhealthy and definitely not happy. If I’m not working i always get depressed.

  • Evie

    TOTALLY agree with this…as much as work can overwhelm and stress me at times, I find it to be the backbone to my happiness as I am experiencing little achievements and fulfilling purpose throughout the day which is rewarding…and when I have days off to relax and even travel, I can often feel bored, sad, unmotivated and have too much time to think negative thoughts. I think the ideal way to happiness is to work part-time or 4 days a week so that you have enough time to recover and feel healthy and energised enough to handle work…because if you go too far with working then you become ill and unhealthy and definitely not happy. If I’m not working i always get depressed.

  • Via F.

    The biggest help for me was an applicationwhat helps me make time for what I want to do in my free time. I didn’t find that exact one, but I guess this could help you too: http://tweio.com/ Did anyone tried another app for time management? Thank you! 🙂