The Declaration of Independence has instilled in the American culture a belief that we have the right to the pursuit of happiness. But actually pursuing happiness can be a struggle for some. Defining happiness and the process to get there isn’t so clear-cut.

Happiness is a topic of immense interest to humans in our own personal searches. There are blogs and books like The Happiness Project that try to define strategies for happiness. There are TED Talks about happiness. There are quotes about happiness. And there are endless studies about happiness.

Professional Happiness Study


The perception of time

I heard about one such study at the University of Maryland on the radio. The study measured how people perceive their time — how rushed they feel and how often they have time on their hands. It’s pretty common to think that if we had more time, we’d be happier. But the study showed just the opposite. The people who reported being the happiness almost never feel rushed and don’t have time on their hands that they don’t know what to do with.

Most people don’t like feeling rushed; that seems pretty self-evident. It’s nice to be in control of our own schedules. But the more surprising part is that people don’t enjoy having excess time on their hands. The interesting thing about this is that excess time is self-defined. So if you schedule time to watch TV, exercise, and hang out with friends, that’s not considered time that you don’t know what to do with. The key seems to be making time for the things you want to do, even if other people would consider that idle time. So being busy (but not rushed) seems to make people happier.

Personal Experiment

Before I heard about the study, I found a similar result in an activity with Dog & Pony DC. I have attended several of the events in their Toast Incubator Series, which helps to devise their next show called Toast. During one seminar, we played with the idea of a dramati-graph. It’s like a live infographic with people that moves. Each group of two was given a passage from Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson to illustrate in dramati-graph form with the rest of the group.

One group asked us all to stand in a line based on the amount of flexibility and control we have with our schedules. People who had absolute flexibility were on the far left, while those with a predefined schedule on a daily basis were on the far right, and the rest were somewhere in between.

Once this line was established, we were asked to move in relation to our comfort with our schedule flexibility. Those totally comfortable with their level of flexibility moved all the way to the front wall, those completely uncomfortable moved to the back wall, and others moved forward or back somewhere in between.

Ms. HalfEmpty as a happy toddler

It was pretty easy for Ms. HalfEmpty to be happy as a toddler. Is that because of a defined schedule?

As it turned out, the people on the left who had absolute schedule flexibility moved all the way against the back wall, meaning they were uncomfortable with the complete freedom. This small-scale unscientific experiment, played out similarly to the study above.


It seems like most people crave some schedule structure — an abundance of time with no plan won’t make us happy. Perhaps a key to happiness is scheduling enjoyable activities. I certainly don’t have the answers, but best of luck in your pursuit of happiness.

  • Can you define happiness? Have you found it in your life?
  • Do you feel rushed? Do you have excess time on your hands?
  • How much flexibility do you have with your daily schedule? How comfortable are you with that?
  • What are your happiness strategies?

Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!