I’ve noticed that I don’t do all that much with my free time. I do mindless things like browse the internet and watch videos. I always link free time with relaxation so I disassociate myself from anything I perceive as work.
I’ve also noticed that this trend leads to more frustration that it’s meant to. I feel better when I’m making progress with work. However, it seems odd to exclaim I enjoy working instead of relaxing but that’s exactly what happens. Doing nothing constructive can be extremely boring and even tiring but I almost feel obligated to continue doing nothing with my free time because I don’t want it to become like work.
Being in the flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has produced some great research on what makes people happy. He noticed that a surprising number of people are actually happier at work than during their free time despite saying they enjoyed their free time more. In light of this, the solution for some is to either fill up their free time with more work or do nothing about it. Neither are ideal. One just leads to burnout and a build up of resentment towards it. The other doesn’t help change your position in any way.
Csikszentmihalyi says that being in a state of flow is what makes people happy. There are a few factors present when someone is in the flow.
- They’re completely focused on one activity
- They feel in control of what they’re doing
- It’s intrinsically rewarding
- They essentially lose their sense of time
All these factors point to a situation where you’re so focused on an activity you enjoy that you don’t have time to be frustrated with yourself. You feel relaxed because you’re living in the present and very mindful of what you’re doing.
Best of all: you’re happy.
How to be in the flow
While you’ve probably experienced this feeling before, you might not know why it happens.
This chart shows what it takes for someone to be in the state of flow.
The difficulty level of the activity should match our perceived skill set. This means it shouldn’t be so difficult that you feel like throwing a chair through your window. Nor should it be so easy that you could fall asleep at a moments notice.
People usually feel happier while actually doing something (even if it’s at work or while studying) because of a constructive environment. You’re more likely to be completely focused on a project you want to work on, than sifting through pictures of birds with arms.
Why free time can make us unhappy
The reason why people can feel frustrated or unhappy with their free time is mainly because they don’t do anything with it. If you spend all day refreshing YouTube, then you’l probably feel extremely unfulfilled. Boredom will rise at an alarming rate, time will disappear and ‘damn, where did the time go?’ will be exclaimed.
Being happily unproductive
If you don’t feel like you enjoy your free time or have even found it draining (like I have!), here’s a list of a few things you could start doing:
Learn a new skill – There’s so much out there that can help you learn things for free or a small price. Online courses offered by websites such as Coursera, edX, Codecademy and Duolingo are fun and engaging. You don’t need to put pressure on yourself to complete them by a certain date.
Read a book – If you have a list of books that you’ve been meaning to get started with, actually do it. If not, there are over 800 new books published each day in the US. You’ll find something to read! Losing yourself in a good book is a perfect example of what it feels like to be in the flow.
Create something – At least try. It’s easy to dismiss this option because you’re ‘not a creative person’ but creativity is something that can be developed as well as anything else. Write, draw, make music or even build something! It doesn’t need to be a best seller but spend a small time creating something and you’ll probably find it fun and try again.
Have a hobby – That can be anything from maintaining a blog or learning something new to marking origami turtles. If you have no idea what you could do, try a variety of things and you’ll find something you’ll want to pursue more. (Try origami, it’s a lot of fun)
Do some gaming – This isn’t an excuse to game unconditionally for hours and hours on end but the reason why we can play games for so long is because of flow!
Enjoy your free time
After reading this, you might have realised that you don’t actually care for much of what you do in your free time. Switching through TV channels in an attempt to find something interesting is boring. Instead, do something interesting.
You don’t want it to be be mentally draining or become like work but doing next to nothing might not help you feel that relaxed either.
If you want to find out more about flow and where I got my information from, I’d recommend watching Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on the topic and reading his book called ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.
Another thing you can do, if you found this post helpful, is share it. You can follow the blog too. It’ll put you in the zone if you do. (It won’t. Sorry)
1. The ‘800 books a day’ statistic was simply found by dividing the number of books published a year in the US by 365.
2. The image came from news.cnet.com
3. Birds with arms is exactly what it sounds like.
4. I can’t say Csikszentmihalyi’s name. I just stare at it. Should I feel bad? Csikszentmihalyi if you ever read this post, hi and sorry I can’t say your name.