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Aruba, March 27, 2015 - Would you be happier if you spent an hour juggling emails, meetings, and data analysis, or if you spent that hour focused only on data analysis? Which would you enjoy more: a Saturday spent bouncing from running errands, to cooking an elaborate dinner, to playing with the kids, or a Saturday dedicated solely to playing with the kids? In short, how does variety among one’s activities influence happiness? Our research tackles this fundamental question. To investigate, we conducted a series of experiments among a broad range of participants. After asking them to work on a variety of activities, we measured how happy they felt by combining their answers to these two questions: How happy do you feel right now? And how satisfied do you feel right now?
The results were surprising. Whereas participants expected that more variety would always make them happier, when looking back, more variety only made them happier for sufficiently long periods of time — like over a day, a week, or a month. Over shorter time periods, like 10 minutes or an hour, more varied activities actually made people less happy.
In one experiment, for example, we asked a group of college students to spend an hour working on materials from a variety of classes while a different group worked on material from one class. At the end of the hour, we measured how happy these individuals felt, as well as how productive they felt. The students who spent the hour on materials from a variety of classes reported feeling less productive than students who spent the hour on materials from just one class, and this led them to feel less happy.
In another experiment, we asked students to do a series of activities with different types of candy. One group performed a variety of tasks with the candies (they evaluated the taste of the gummy bears, named the jellybeans, and organized the M&Ms by color), while the other group performed the same task across candies (they evaluated the taste of the gummy bears, jellybeans, and M&Ms). All participants had 15 minutes to work on the tasks, and afterwards, we measured how happy and productive they felt. Again, the students who spent 15 minutes doing the same task felt more productive — and happier — than the students who spent the time on a variety of tasks.