Health and Wellness

You're spending your free time wrong — here's what to do to be happier and more successful

@SashaNell | Twenty20

The most important currency in life isn't money, it's time, according to health and wellness expert Deepak Chopra. Building what Chopra calls "time affluence," or structuring your day so that you have lots of free time, will increase your life satisfaction and well-being, he wrote for CNBC Make It in 2018.

Research supports this idea: Studies have shown that spending money on experiences is more rewarding than buying material goods, for example. And a 2016 survey found that 72% of millennials prefer spending their money on activities rather than items.

The problem is, many of us are spending our free time in ways that aren't really making us happy, says James Wallman, trend forecaster and author of "Time and How To Spend It."

And that's important because happiness is directly linked to our professional success, says Wallman.

Research shows "happiness leads to success, not the other way around," he says. "So if we want to be successful, we need to aim for happiness and resilience," Wallman says.

For his book, Wallman interviewed researchers, cultural anthropologists and experts in the field of happiness and consumer behavior to figure out how people should be spending their time. What did he find?

"Leisure doesn't improve quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively," Wallman tells CNBC Make It.

Wallman defines leisure time as any time when you're not occupied with work or chores, paid or unpaid. "It's the time equivalent of 'disposable income,'" he says.

Wallman estimates that American adults have about 36 to 40 hours of "free" time in a week. (This tracks with the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2018 American Time Use Survey, which found that men and women spend 5.7 and 4.9 hours of time respectively on leisure activities each day. They define "leisure" as activities outside of work, household chores, school and religious activities. For example, watching TV took up half of all leisure time, on average.)

So what's the best way to optimize your free time? While there's no perfect activity that's best for everyone, Wallman says some experiences are "junk experiences" and others are like "superfoods."

The "superfood" activities put you into a state of "flow," he says, which is "a state of optimal experience arising from intense involvement in an activity that is enjoyable," according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Finding activities that lead to a state of flow is key if you're looking to increase creativity and happiness.

Experts believe you can achieve flow when your skills are being utilized, you feel motivated and you aren't self-conscious but rather have a sense of "total control," according to the APA. Wallman says that any pleasurable activity that truly challenges us has the potential to lead to the elusive flow-state that so many people are after.

"Flow [is] about being in the present zone [and] really enjoying yourself," Wallman says.

Here are seven things Wallman says you should think about when you're deciding which types of experiences to invest your time and energy in:

1. Does it leave you with a story?

Making memories through experiences gives us stories to tell. For example, taking a hike with a friend might lead to a better "story" than re-watching your favorite TV show alone in your living room. Those stories allow us to develop connections with other people, which provides unity, purpose and meaning in our lives, Wallman says. And when you share a story with someone else, you develop a kinship that increases your happiness even more.

2. Does it change you?

Anything that forces you to grow or gives you purpose is key to personal development. Activities that teach you new skills or capabilities, change your world view, lead to epiphanies or move you toward a greater goal are all "transformational." This could be anything from learning a new recipe to taking an improv class.

3. Does it allow you to unplug?

Unplugging from digital devices and notifications when you're relaxing or spending time with others can help you tune into "real life," Wallman says. "Once you pull your phone out, it instantly pulls you out of being in flow and in the zone," he says. For example, he keeps his phone on silent and leaves an OOO reply on his email that lets people know he may not reply right away. Research also shows that spending 120 minutes a week in nature improves your health and well-being.

4. Does it improve your relationships?

An 80-year long Harvard study showed that relationships, not money, predicted how happy and healthy participants were as they aged. Spending free time with friends and family members, or keeping in touch on the phone, deepens your relationships and also allows you to share your happiness with others.

5. Does it feel challenging?

Leisurely activities should still engage you on a level that allows you to utilize your skills and passions, because we're happier when we are fully engaged with something that requires all of our energy. Removing distractions while you complete a task or activity is one way to dial up the intensity, Wallman says.

6. Does make you feel a sense of awe?

Moments of awe (watching a sunset, spending time with children or visiting monuments) improve your mood and how satisfied you are with your life. Perhaps more importantly, awe can make you appreciate ordinary moments even more.

7. Does it improve your social status?

Human beings care about their social status. Rather than chasing more material possessions or "keeping up with the Joneses," Wallman says that giving back to your community through volunteering is one way to make your social status more meaningful, and make you feel like you're playing an active role in society.

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