Why Most People are Happier Working than in Their Free Time

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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.


  • 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.

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