Time out - How to reclaim your weekend

We are hardwired for nature and are more likely to feel happy by the sea than in an urban setting. Picture: iStock

A new book wants us to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences to help us spend our free time in ways that lead to more health and happiness, says Helen O’Callaghan

James Wallman spent the weekend hanging out with his children, first in the garden of their London home, where Woodrow, five, chased bugs and butterflies and Wallman did some gardening. Then onto the park — Woodrow fed and chased pigeons and Wallman and India-May, seven, swung in a double hammock while reading poetry.

A cultural commentator and trend forecaster, Wallman is author of just-published Time And How To Spend It - and how he spent his weekend isn’t just something he fell into on Saturday morning because he couldn’t think what else to do. Wallman’s aim is to spend his leisure time on the right kind of experiences — “not junk, empty ones but healthy, nurturing, exciting ones that are more likely to supply the vital bricks for enduring happiness and success”.

Ability to distinguish between good and bad experiences and to “use this information to effectively guide your thinking and actions” is how he defines ‘experience intelligence’ — essential, he says, for spending our free time in ways that lead to more happiness and success.

According to Wallman, we typically have 36-40 hours of disposable time every week to spend however we want. “We’re time-rich,” he says. Yet we feel time-poor — and for many reasons:

Busyness is a status symbol. Important people are busy, so we want to be busy too. People send emails at midnight, at 5.45am and on a Sunday.

And there’s the endless ocean of possibilities, both digital and real-world — always something new to read or watch online, more things than ever to keep up with and visit and try out.

“We try to keep up by multitasking, [even] in our leisure time. Playing with our kids, we check Facebook and the football scores. We’re with one group of friends and posting pictures to another.”

Sociologists, he points out, say multitasking ‘contaminates’ time. Added to this, our internet addiction via devices like smartphones is eating up our free time.

“[In] 2007, the amount of leisure time we spent on them could be measured in minutes. Now it’s measured in hours — we spend, on average, three and a half hours a day online.” The premise of Wallman’s book is that science suggests ways of spending our free time that will make us happier. He condenses the ‘rules’ of experience intelligence into a STORIES checklist — each letter represents the essentials to look for when deciding how to spend your time.

Story: Choose experiences that produce stories. People who tell stories about their lives that follow ‘redemptive’ pattern — story begins with difficult event but ends with good result — are happier and more likely to connect with others.

The brain of the listener fires in sync with yours — called ‘mirror neurons’. It creates empathy between [you].

See yourself as hero of your story — say ‘yes’ to adventure (go mountain climbing, have more picnics); see setbacks as vital opportunities to find allies/build skills. When telling your story, share the challenges, not just the highlights.

Transformation: Choose transforming experiences. “Whether major change, tweaking what’s there or the richer idea of growth and becoming, transformation’s vital for happiness.”

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts self-actualisation (‘becoming everything one’s capable of becoming) as the highest goal. What’s the change you want right now?

Wallman sees three degrees of transformation: ‘fly and flop’ (life’s busy/pressurised — swap it all for a week doing nothing under blue skies); ‘find and seek’ (go sightseeing with your explorer’s hat on); ‘go and become’ (learn to cook Szechuan cuisine, sail a boat, paint or walk the Camino).

Outside and offline: Choose experiences that take you outside. London School of Economics researchers found we’re up to2.7 points happier in natural environments — 1.8 in fresh water/wetlands/floodplains, rising to 2.7 points in mountains/moors/heathlands. And we’re six points happier when at ‘marine and coastal margins’ then when in urban spaces.

It’s due to biophilia: “our species has spent 99% of its existence in nature — we’re hardwired to find sights/sounds/smells of nature relaxing”.

Go offline and free up your free time, says Wallman. “Eight out of 10 people check their phones within 15 minutes of getting up. On average we pick up our phone 150 times a day.” Yet, research finds spending more time online makes you more likely to feel isolated/stressed/depressed.

You won’t sleep as well. Even checking in now and then is bad for your ability to get things done. Clicking on Facebook may only take seconds, but research shows people take an average of 23 minutes to return to their original task.

Relationships: Studies show having better social connections — relationships with people you feel are “on your team”— makes you 50% more likely to be alive. So do something, anything, says Wallman — and for three key reasons. “First, when you do something, you often do it with someone else. Think of netball, board games. Second, doing something gives you sense of belonging — people who go camping connect with other people who go camping. Third, you’ll have something to talk about and stories create stronger connections between us.”

Intensity: It’s not what you do that matters — it’s how you do it. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rock-climbing, painting, partying, practising yoga or playing chess. So long as it occupies all of your attention and psychic energy, it’ll almost inevitably lead you into relaxed, happy psychological state [called] ‘flow’,” says Wallman. But beware of fake flow. “If, at end of your activity, you feel alive, enhanced, that’s real flow. But if at the end, perhaps after a longer-than-expected zone-out on one of your devices, you feel depleted, drained, that’s fake flow.”

Extraordinary experiences: Do new things (“variety’s the spice of happiness,” says Wallman). “They expand our sense of self, of who we are, what we can do. They release dopamine, making us feel good. They stimulate our minds, make us more creative and strengthen brain connections.”

Also, do awe-inducing activities: prayer, star-gazing, appreciating nature — especially ‘big nature’ like enjoying view of/from a hill/cliff/the sea. “This gives a sense of the universe’s vastness and how small our place is within it. Studies show it diminishes ego and small-minded focus, [instead] opening us up to transcendental experience.”

But also see the extraordinary in the ordinary — research suggests thinking of an ordinary experience as if it’s something special, helps you get more out of it.

Status and significance: “We don’t like to talk about status. We tend to think about it as ego-driven, selfish and empty — the sort of success that leaves you lost,” says Wallman.

Nevertheless, he says who we are, what we are and where we are in society does matter. People with higher status live healthier, happier lives. “The key to making status meaningful is to upgrade it to significance by helping others,” he says, citing a 2012 study that found spending time on others is a sure strategy for happiness.

Wallman doesn’t want people to feel they always have to be doing. “You don’t have to live with your hair on fire, squeezing in as many exciting experiences as you can. We remember life through snapshots — things that are unusual, new. But taking a walk, praying, having dinner with family — these are really good for wellbeing. To have a fulfilled life, you need to enjoy the extraordinary and ordinary moments.”

Time out - How to reclaim your weekend

- Time And How To Spend It, The 7 Rules for Richer, Happier Days, James Wallman, €14

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