Tips

How to spend your time well

Just as science has shown that some foods are bad for your health, and others are good for you, so scientists have found that some ways of spending your time are bad for your wellbeing – and some lead to happiness, health, resilience and success. In the course of researching my most recent book, I found that the best advice boils down to seven principles, as evidenced by robust research by social scientists at the world’s leading universities. They are easy to remember, as together they spell ‘STORIES’

Illustration of man on a stand up paddleboard

Story

When you tell an engaging story, the neurons of person or people listening fire up in the same way as neurons in your brain. This ‘mirror neurons’ effect, as it’s called, is the science of empathy, which helps us to make connections and foster relationships. And relationships, for a hyper-social species like us humans, equal happiness. So when things don’t work out as planned, but they give you a story to tell, that might still contribute to your happiness.

Winding road bordered by water and forest

Transformation

Janis Joplin got it right: “Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got.” Being who we are and becoming who we have the potential to be is vital for our happiness. So, instead of thinking your journey is over and you’ve reached your destination – and getting caught in what psychologist Dan Gilbert called the ‘end-of-history illusion’ – ask yourself: how can I grow here? What can I learn? What will I become next?

People walking on a beach

Outside and offline

The device you’re reading this on is an incredible piece of technology. It puts more information at your fingertips than once existed in all the world’s great libraries. But it wasn’t designed to make you happy. It was designed by people whose key metric is measuring ‘time on device’. Science shows us that we’re happier when we spend more time away from these weapons of mass distraction – and we’re happier outside, in nature, especially when we’re in the woods and by the sea.

Family dining around a table

Relationships

A Harvard study shows that the clearest indicator that someone will live a healthy, happy, long life isn’t what they eat, how much they drink or, even, if they smoke – it’s how many and how good their relationships are. Other research shows that strangers are much more likely to want to connect than we realise. So, when you get the chance, make a point to spend time with those you love and who love you. And sometimes, more often than you do now, say hi to that stranger. You’ll both end up happier.

Person crossing the finishing line on a running track

Intensity

Too many of us fantasise that the good life is when the work is done and we’ve got our feet up, maybe on the sofa or the sun lounger – but research shows we’re more likely to be happier when we’re up against some sort of difficult, meaningful challenge. Psychologists call this being in ‘flow’, athletes call it ‘the zone’, and Eckhart Tolle calls it ‘the present’. Whatever you call it, and whichever activities that means for you personally, the best advice is to make some more room for it in your life.

Stars in the night sky

Extraordinary

As well as the ‘experiencing self’ – the you who lives through an experience – you should think about your ‘anticipating’ and ‘remembering’ selves, too. Since each moment is just that – there, see, it’s gone! – you should make sure the anticipating self looks forward to it, and the remembering self remembers it. To do this, plan ‘peak experiences’: things that are new, unusual, or give you a sense of awe, such as taking in the view from the top of a mountain, or watching the stars at night.

Flowers in a jug

Status and significance

Oscar winners are said to live four years longer than actors who haven’t won an Oscar. This strange fact illustrates a vital truth that’s useful for all of us: if you have more status, you’ll live a longer, healthier, and happier life. So, seek status in what you do: choose activities that bring you status in the eyes of others. Yes, that sounds desperately awkward (even if many of us secretly do this already). What’s key, though, is to aim for the sort of status that’s not just egotistic but altruistic, the sort that, instead of separating us from others, connects us to them. Aristotle called this ‘magnificence’, but that was focused on large acts of generosity. I prefer ‘significance’, because it’s available to all of us, and encompasses both large and small acts of kindness.

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