Balancing Act: Do your work, life choices add up to happiness?

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A good friend of mine is sick, very sick.

Until now, my friend's balancing act has been the one most of us face: making time for work and her life outside of it, mostly her daughters. Now, she faces the toughest juggle of motherhood -- cancer treatment and her strong desire to stay involved in the day-to-day activities of her teen girls. As she reprioritizes, her illness has made me think a lot about how all of us use our time.

If you were to track your time, carefully, for a week, how would you say you spend most of your days and nights? Are you spending your time in a way that makes you happy?

Right now, Americans are less happy and optimistic than we've been in decades. Only about one-third of Americans describe themselves as "very happy," according to surveys funded by the National Science Foundation. A few changes in time usage could move you closer to improving happiness.

Get more fulfillment from work. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the author of "Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow," said that when workers feel like they can make a difference, it leaves them more fulfilled. Passion for your job increases happiness, too.

Many people view learning a new skill at work as a frustrating task. But accomplishing personal growth makes people happy. "When someone is moving a project forward, or going to a conference to learn something new, there's a big time/happiness payoff," said Gretchen Rubin, author of "Happier at Home" and "The Happiness Project," a New York Times best-seller and a popular blog.

Spend more time on leisure, less time on mundane. The annual American Time Use Survey provides a window into how Americans spend their days. This year, the survey shows those of us who work spend about 7.7 hours a weekday at our jobs. We spend 2-2.6 hours on household tasks, about 1.3 hours on child care, and about 1.4-1.9 hours on recreation and leisure.

For most people, physical activity and volunteer work are linked with happiness. Social connections are big predictors as well. "The more time that individuals spend on relationships -- going to lunch with a co-worker or out to dinner with close friends -- the happier they are," Ms. Rubin said.

Re-assess your spending. Rather than buying bigger homes or luxury cars, psychologists found people are most happy when they spend their money on experiences, such as attending a baseball game with friends or taking a trip.

Consider easing up on multitasking. But researchers say we are most happy when we are engaged directly with an activity with a single focus.

Even if you already consider yourself happy, it's important to revisit your time use now and then and make sure you are making a habit of spending it in ways that lead to maximum fulfillment. My friend plans to do that, and I do, too.

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Cindy Krischer Goodman: balancegal@gmail.com.


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