Take a day off and try these happiness tactics
Ferris Bueller famously had a day off in the 1986 movie. On his day off he wags school, steals and then writes off his dad’s car, goes to a French restaurant, gatecrashes a party and is mean to his teachers.
Does that make a happy day off?
I wanted to find out the secrets to an ideal day off, so I researched a range of happiness tactics and tried to cram them into one day in August. Rob Pyne’s (Happy) Day Off. Here’s what I did and what the science taught me.
Losing the phone
Remember the term “crackberry”? That was 9 years ago that I first heard that term, and our addiction to mobile phones has got worse since. You can feel the constant psychological pull of the phone distracting you from what you should be focused on. One of the symptoms is checking your phone up to 150 times a day, and this frequent checking may be associated with depression.
So, tactic one to have a Happy Day Off was to ignore email, internet and social media and put my phone away. This had a noticeable positive impact, making me feel calmer and more centred, and allowing me to be more present and mindful.
What I learnt: set very specific boundaries for your phone and email; put the phone out of reach. You’ll enjoy life substantially more by not being distracted.
I spent most of the day up in Whale Beach and Avalon in Sydney, two sleepy holiday villages with tree lined café strips, and good surfing beaches. On the way there I happened upon a winding traffic jam stretching around bends and up and down hills for nearly 5 kilometres. Luckily it was in the other direction. Canadian research has indicated that commuting for more than 20 minutes has a significant impact stress levels. Interestingly, this is even greater if you are a passenger in a car compared to a driver, because passengers have even less sense of control.
What I learnt: one of the key causes of stress in commuting is the lack of control, and the unpredictability. If you can’t avoid commuting, then at least pick a form of transport which is predictably on time. In Sydney, ferries are great for commuting as they almost always leave and arrive on time, and you even get to look out for dolphins and whales (although 95%+ of passengers have their eyes firmly glued on their mobile screen, failing to notice when there are dolphins dancing outside).
Float away from your worries
My first destination was a surf spot at the north end of Whale Beach called the Wedge. One of the things I’ve always loved about surfing is that when you sit out in the surf looking back at the land, you are actually floating off the edge of the continent, completely separated from any of your land-based worries. All you need to do is keep an eye out for the lines of swell in the distance. It’s very easy out in the surf to live in the moment, be mindful, and to appreciate the glory of nature. That is – unless the surf is big and each approaching wave looks like it might smash you into smithereens. And then it’s not so relaxing.
What I learnt: finding a physical place of peace and quiet, and being focused on what’s happening around you is an unexpected blessing of surfing.
Be nice to strangers
Luckily the Wedge was small that day, and so I didn’t get wedged or whacked and I took the chance to chat to the other surfers. For some reason, I never normally do this, I see them as competitors fighting for waves rather than kindred spirits.
This idea of being kind to strangers was a key strategy for my Happy Day Off. If I’m honest I can be quite matter of fact when I order a coffee or share an elevator with someone. So, after I’d caught a few waves and had a chat to a few surfers, and I was feeling pretty awesome about the world already, I found myself a nice café in Avalon.
The waitress happened to be the new owner of the café, and we discussed their plans, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the broccoli and leek soup I was served.
I am naturally a bit of an introvert sometimes, happy with my own thoughts and company, but I know that I always enjoy it when I make the effort to be nice to strangers. Along with ignoring my phone, chatting to other surfers and the café owner was one of the happiest parts of the day.
What I learnt: it takes a little effort to be nice to strangers, but if you can remind yourself to do it, it pays immediate dividends for you, and for them.
Show your gratitude
One of the most robust findings in happiness research is that deliberately taking time to be grateful can increase your overall happiness. For example, one experiment had people write down 3 things they were grateful for once a week, and over the course of the trial, these people had a significantly happier time than a control group. This is particularly useful when things aren’t going so well and the world seems stacked against you.
Another way of exploring gratitude is to take the time to say thank you to people who you appreciate. I’ve previously taken time to do this with a few of my nearest and dearest, and on my Happy Day Off, I decided to phone my sister in law in New Zealand, write a card to my nephews in England. The general reaction from each of them was of being delivered a nice surprise.
What I learnt: there’s definitely a warm and fuzzy feeling from saying thank you to people close to you. It doesn’t take long, but we don’t do it enough. And it’s proven to pay off for both parties.
Get in flow
Once I’d written my thank you card to my nephews, I settled in to see if I could get in “flow,” a mindset where you totally absorbed in a task that you’re enjoying and trying to master. It’s a bit like a feeling of hypnosis where your attention narrows and you exist in your own little bubble. Flow is strongly associated both with being productive, and being happy. And it’s the opposite of multi-tasking and checking your emails every 6 minutes.
My task at the café was to do some reading and research around happiness, taking notes from a book and trying to connect the notes with other ideas.
With no phone in sight, and only some toasted banana bread to distract me, I found getting in to flow pretty easy – and very rewarding. When I emerged from my “flow bubble” after an hour, I had enjoyed stretching my brain into new ideas, and being totally focused.
What I learnt: finding circa 60 minutes to get in flow on an important and interesting task is one of the best ways of finding happiness at work.
Optimism about the future
The book “The How of Happiness,” discusses many of the strategies above, and also goes into the idea of optimism. Humans tend to have an optimism bias built in: on average people believe the future will be brighter than the past for them (and just them, for everyone else we believe the world is going to hell generally!).
One way of going beyond our natural optimism bias is to explore in some detail your ideal future. A technique I’ve used in the past is to write a description of life as you want it to be in 5 years, and this visualization has some proof of raising your happiness today. As a result, I have a picture that contains details around where I live, where I work, how I spend my time.
What I learnt: visualizing your best future self can definitely make you feel positive about the world today.
I find it difficult to meditate, but using the Headspace app which gives me 10 minute guided meditations has been easier (I admit turning this into a regular habit has been hard). On my Happy Day Off, I did take time out to do a guided meditation, and I always see the benefits for a short while afterwards (typically I get a rush of positivity when I finish the meditation, but too often I then rush back into hectic thinking).
What I learnt: thinking about the pros and cons of meditation, I think the benefits might be too short lived for me at the moment.
Time with kids
Controversially, happiness research shows that in terms of moment to moment experience, spending time with your kids is only slightly more enjoyable than doing housework. My personal view is that you get out what you put in: if you give it 100% of your attention and if you’re creative, it’s hugely pleasurable to build castles and do paintings with your kids. But if you are focused at the same time on getting out of the door, trying to do some work or check emails, then yes having kids running riot around you and climbing on everything is not that much fun.
So, when I picked up my two kids from childcare towards the end of my Happy Day Off, I made sure to come up with creative ideas for games, and then to give them all my attention.
What I learnt: children can bring great happiness, but can also feel like a chore if you try to divide your attention.
At the end of the day, were you paying attention?
A significant theme emerges from my Happy Day Off.
A number of the proven ideas to be happier are actually deep down about paying attention: flow, lose the phone, childcare, being at one with nature, meditation.
We know that the theme of mindfulness has been very common in the last 3 years, but mindfulness can be hard to practice. My Happy Day Off shows that there are a number of really easy, practical ways to pay attention and be happier.
Happiness tactics: Better than in the movies
If you want to have a good day off, you don’t need to steal a car, or eat at a posh French restaurant. The ideas I tried are easier, and unlike Ferris Bueller, other people like your teacher, your friends and your Dad might just benefit from your day off too.
Written by Rob Pyne