Boost Your SWB and be Happy

Dorothy Cotton
December 22, 2016
By Dorothy Cotton
I’m writing this on a miserable Saturday morning, one of those dark, dreary, wet days when staying in bed seems the only reasonable option. Some days, the idea of doing NOTHING really appeals, but given the length of my to-do list, it’s not going to happen.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the whole idea of a long to-do list for a Saturday. What ever happened to “leisure?” Shouldn’t I be eating bonbons while ready a trashy novel (or if you prefer, watching football on TV?) Isn’t that what leisure is supposed to be? Even Aristotle was a big advocate of leisure (although I find it hard to imagine him sitting with a bag of cheezies watching sports on TV). He did note that leisure experiences were one of the major determinants of happiness. As a bit of a workaholic myself, I find it useful to try to remember this. Whether you’re a young constable grabbing all the overtime you can, a mid-career officer who’s largely forgotten the whole work/life balance concept – or a senior executive with the delusional belief that the world as we know it will end of if you’re not on your toes 24/7 – consider what you’re doing with your leisure time (assuming you allow yourself any).

There has been a media coverage in recent years about the whole notion of “happiness.” In Psychologyland, we call this “subjective well being (SWB).” Generally we talk about seven domains known to contribute to SWB:

1. Work
2. Health
3. Finances
4. Family
5. Self – like how we feel about ourselves
6. Group identity, which can include culture but also a whole lot more
7. Leisure

The research says these all contribute significantly to SWB – although in some cases (like finances) not as much as you’d think. Work satisfaction is a big factor – but occupational achievement is not as important. Health is important and what you think of yourself overall is a biggy – but what about leisure?

Well, there are a few questions there. First of all, what exactly is leisure? Is football and chips the same as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity? Curiously, the answer is, “it’s up to you.” The research typically talks about “leisure engagement.”

The authors of the paper I am referring to suggest that leisure engagement is the amount of time, diversity or frequency of participation in activities that individuals view as leisure. That would include amount of time, diversity or frequency of participation in normatively defined leisure activities such as social activities, sports, games, cultural experiences... anything really. If you think it’s leisure, then it is.

That’s about as clear as mud. You might ask, what do we know about the relationship between leisure engagement and SWB? Good question! The research suggests:

1. Leisure engagement does predict SWB. People who have and are invested in leisure activities tend to be happier overall.

2. Because nothing is ever simple, SWB also predicts leisure engagement. As we all know, some people tend to just be happier overall for no good reason, and some people seem to have been born grumpy. Happier people tend to be more likely to be involved in leisure pursuits.

3. Leisure satisfaction is an important part of this whole thing. There is more of an effect if you actually enjoy what you are doing with your leisure time. If you watch football and eat junk food only because your significant other likes to do so, you might not derive as much benefit as if you (for example) played the bassoon in an orchestra because you really want to.

So far, frankly, this all seems pretty obvious but there’s a few reasons why it’s worth thinking about. If you go back to that list of domains I mentioned earlier, you might note that most of them are outside your control. The good thing about leisure is that you actually do have some control over it. You can decide how much time to devote to it and how you spend that time.

I suspect many of you are thinking “LEISURE?!?!? I work shifts, have a family and need overtime to pay the mortgage… what leisure?” OK, so how much time do you spend watching TV or playing video games? How is that working for you?” If it really makes you feel better, go for it – but if it simply passes the time, you might want to rethink it.

Clients complaining about work stress are always surprised when one of the first things I do is get them working on hobbies. Usually they want advice on how to get their boss into trouble or change workplace policies that appear counterproductive. These are all worthy goals and I am a staunch advocate of good management and reasonable workplaces – but see the aforementioned caveat about what you can actually control. Trying to change the world might be easier if you’re not miserable. If you don’t have any meaningful leisure activities, you might want to work on that. Leisure satisfaction has a big spill-over effect on other things that contribute to SWB. If your leisure includes sports and physical activities, it will improve health – also a predictor of SWB. Engaging in a family activity may improve your family relations and social satisfaction – also a predictor of SWB.

If you see the same people and problems day after day at work, can’t fix them and feel useless as a person, build a house with Habitat and increase your personal sense of self – also a predictor of SWB. If you engage in all sorts of leisure and never find anything rewarding or satisfying, then have a hard look at your own ways of thinking – and maybe consider a round of therapy to change it.

Life is about more than just being happy, of course, and SWB is not everything. Some of the great people in history were miserable – and there are some pretty happy bad people out there – but there are many who are both happy and successful, do a good job, contribute a lot to the world – and have a high degree of SWB. I want to be one of them.

The content of this column is largely derived from the paper “Leisure Engagement and Subjective Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis,” by Lauren Kuykendall, Louis Tay and Vincent Ng; Psychological Bulletin © 2015 American Psychological Association 2015, Vol. 141, No. 2, 364–403.

Dr. Dorothy Cotton is Blue Line’s psychology columnist. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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