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Is time the key to happiness?Activity provides satisfaction, but we want more rest

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In a world full of prosperity, luxury and obligations, time is a scarce commodity. Research even shows that we become happier from 'more free time' rather than from 'more expensive stuff'. "Yet in spite of this time pressure, we are pretty happy," states 'happiness professor' Ruut Veenhoven. 

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Prof. Ruut Veenhoven is an emeritus professor of sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. As a pioneer in the field of research into human happiness he is internationally famous. Among other things, he is the founder of the World Database of Happiness and of the Journal of Happiness Studies. And after more than fifty years of research, he knows one thing for sure: we shouldn't be moaning: "We are pretty happy these days, at least in modern countries like the Netherlands. We live longer and more satisfied than ever. There is prosperity, security and freedom and that gives you room to live a life that suits you."

An 8 for happiness

High scores from the Netherlands on international happiness rankings confirm this: "There we are with an average of eight in the leading group. Only the Danes are doing even better with an 8.5." Yet many people also experience stress. We're all busy, busy, busy, and burn-out seems to be on its way to becoming disease number 1. Why is that? "It's because of the tremendous speed of everyday life," Veenhoven explains. "The pace of life in modern countries such as Japan, Germany and the Netherlands is much higher than in more traditional cultures such as Indonesia or Mexico. We literally walk faster when we go from A to B, we work more productively and live strictly according to the clock. We have to perform, at work, in family life and at the sports club. Plus, we don't think you should wait for happiness in the afterlife, but you should make happiness yourself. And there is so much fun stuff to choose from... that's why we fill our diaries fuller than is good for us."

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We feel happiest in the area between boredom and stress

Being busy makes you happy? 

It seems a contradiction – busy and happy – but it can be done. And Veenhoven knows why: "Research shows that being busy hardly makes us less happy. What's more: the activity also provides a great deal of satisfaction and with that a feeling of happiness. Being busy with various things – work, family life, sports, going out, travelling and social contacts – often feels positive. You use all your talents, are sharp and alert. Nature rewards this with a pleasant feeling. From a biological point of view, that's a good thing too: animal species that didn't have that can't repeat it."

An 8 for happiness

Better to have time than things 

Still, it can get too crazy. Research by economist Paul Smeets of Maastricht University revealed this more than two years ago. Through a sample of six thousand people, he discovered that people become happier if they spend money on getting more free time rather than if they bought precious things with the same money. In other words: it is better to be a handyman or help around the house (and therefore have more time for yourself) than to buy a new flat screen TV. 

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Are we now at a point where we need rest rather than activity? Veenhoven looks at this in a nuanced way: "What makes us happy varies enormously from person to person and from situation to situation. Two things are more or less the same for every human being: we need about eight hours of sleep a day, and we feel happiest in the zone somewhere between boredom and stress – when the challenges we face match our abilities. But what makes you happiest in those other sixteen hours is different for everyone." 

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