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Happiness in Everyday Life: The Uses of Experience Sampling

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi & Jeremy Hunter
The Quality of Life Research Center

Published in 'Journal of Happiness Studies', Vol 4(2), 185-199, Spring 2003

Using a representative sample of American teenagers (n = 828), this study investigated variations in emotional states over time in order to examine the impact of momentary changes in the environment on people's happiness levels.  Each participant was given a programmable wristwatch set to signal at random moments eight times a day for a period of one week.  Upon hearing the signal, the teenagers completed a form containing open-ended questions about what they were doing at that moment; multiple-choice items regarding whom they were with; and a series of close-ended scales addressing a wide range of feelings and conditions associated with that moment.  


The teenagers were happiest when they were talking with friends and the percentage of time they spent socializing was positively related to happiness.  Thus, young people feel happier when they interact with peers, and those who do so more often are on the average happier than those who interact less.  Active leisure activities (e.g. playing games, sports) and passive leisure activities (e.g. watching TV, listening to music) were also above average, with some of the happiest experiences involving music and art.  Social class, which was measured on the community-level rather than household income, indicated the largest differences in happiness levels.  Surprisingly, the highest levels of happiness were reported by teenagers living in 'Working Class' communities compared to those living in more affluent environments.  

The lowest rates of happiness related to school-related homework and being alone.  However, contrary to what one might expect, the amount of time spent in school-related activities during the week was actually positively related to happiness, indicating that teenagers who study more are in fact happier, even though the act of studying per se is lower in happiness than most other activities.  Presumably they realise that by building psychological capital the range of opportunities and hence their freedom will increase in the future.

The social structure of time also had a clear impact on happiness, with the lowest levels of happiness being reported on Sundays.  Happiness scores increased slightly day by day thereafter, peaking on Saturdays, when the teenagers were significantly happier.  The results suggested that the early part of the weekend, with its freedom from work or school, was experienced as liberating.  During the weekdays, when time was structured by school requirements, participants were less happy.  In fact, the difference in happiness between afternoon reports and those obtained before noon were striking.

The researchers expected that young people who spent more time in situations they perceived as being conducive to 'flow' would be on the whole happier. To measure whether a person was more likely to be in a flow condition they calculated the percent of time spent in situations that were above the mean level of challenge and the mean level of skill at the same time.  Indeed, the frequency of time spent in the flow condition was a very strong predictor of happiness, even after taking significant demographic variables into account.  The findings also suggested that happiness is strongly related to an extraverted lifestyle. Not being alone, feeling excited, proud, being in high-challenge, high skill situations were all related to how happy a young person felt.

It is clear from the evidence presented in this study that what one does and whom one is with will modify a person's base-line of happiness. Freely chosen activities and the company of peers raise the level of happiness, while obligatory activities like schoolwork and the condition of solitude lowers it.  Teenagers ascribe 'happiness' to their moods when they are in situations of relative freedom, in the company of friends, able to engage in flow activities that stretch their skills and make them feel alive and proud.  Thus, the results of this research could play an important role in education and social policy.

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