The answer may have a major impact on your happiness, so psychology research suggests. Because if you'll allow us to get existential for a moment, we only get about 150 billion bits of attention in our lives—so the way we invest those bits is pretty crucial.
So how are we to invest them?
At Fast Company we have a bit of a scholar-crush on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: the University of Claremont Graduate University psychologist wrote Flow, the result of 20-plus years of researching how deep-level happiness works. In it he advances the argument that the most genuinely happy, most thoroughly satisfied people develop themselves in two opposite, though congruent, directions:
- Differentiation: where you become more unique, separating yourself from everybody else
- Integration: where you find yourself more a part of society, in that you're unifying yourself with people, ideas, and entities beyond yourself
When you go in both directions, Csikszentmihalyi says, you become more complex: you're feel like you're very much your own person, but also feel like you belong to humanity. And if you don't go in both directions, it can create problems:
A self that is only differentiated—not integrated—may attain great individual accomplishments, but risks being mired in self-centered egotism. By the same token, a person who self is based exclusively on integration will be well connected and secure, but lack autonomous individuality. Only when a person invests equal amounts of psychic energy in these two processes and avoids both selfishness and conformity is the self likely to reflect complexity.
The interplay of integration and differentiation can be seen in education as well:
... in a classroom that is differentiated but not integrated, there is a lot of stimulation, high expectations, and encouragement of differences, but without caring and support. As a result, the students are ambitious and perform well, yet feel insecure and unhappy. By contrast, a classroom that is integrated but not differentiated is characterized by caring and support, but the students are unmotivated, unchallenged and fail to develop ambition.
Now that we have the frame of complexity handy, what can we do with that spare 20 minutes? Our reporting indicates you can:
- Read amazing literature: because it builds both knowledge and empathy for others' lives.
- Conquer a skill: Because you learn them by doing at least a tiny bit (every day), thus making you more individualized.
- Get some meditation in: Because it helps you see how wacky your mind is.
- Go for a walk in the woods: because it places you in a context bigger than your iPhone.
- Call your mom: Because family stories build resilience. Because she misses you.
Hat tip: Medium
Readers: what do you do if you have 20 minutes free?