Variety not Always the Spice of Life, Research Finds

June 9, 2016
Behavioral Science, Marketing





Want to be happier? Try something new, they say. Mix it up a little. But new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business reveals it's not quite that simple.

Professor Jordan Etkin found engaging in a variety of activities from day to day can make us happier, but too much variety in too short a time can have the opposite effect.

"We found that when we fill longer time periods with varied activities, it feels stimulating and makes us happier with that time," Etkin said. "But when we jam variety into hours and minutes, that reduces happiness because it takes away from our sense of productivity. That's true even if we get done what we were trying to get done. If we switch between very different things in a short amount of time, we don't feel as if we've accomplished as much."

The research, "Does Variety among Activities Increase Happiness?" is newly published online in the Journal of Consumer Research. Etkin worked with Cassie Mogilner of UCLA.

They conducted eight experiments using hundreds of participants across age groups, gender, and marital and employment status. In some, they encouraged participants to see more variety among their past activities, and in others asked them to perform more or less varied activities. Then the researchers measured how happy participants felt.

"It seems the pivot point is around a day," Etkin said. "We find that over longer periods of time — a day, a week or a month — spending time on more varied activities does lead people to feel happier afterwards. But over shorter time periods — an hour, 30 minutes or 15 minutes — people feel less happy after spending time on more varied things."

Etkin also found that the way we view our time can influence how much variety makes us happy.

In one study, students preparing for final exams were encouraged to see an hour as either longer — by thinking that an hour contains 3,600 seconds, for example — or shorter, by thinking that there are 168 hours in a week. These students spent the next hour reviewing materials from one class or multiple classes, and this influenced how happy they felt at the end of the hour.

"When the hour seemed short, as it naturally does, the group that studied varied class activities felt less happy because they felt less productive," Etkin said. "But when the hour seemed longer, the group that studied varied class materials felt happier because they found the material more engaging."

When people think about variety, they think it's exciting, stimulating and interesting. But we also derive a lot of happiness and satisfaction from feeling we accomplished something with our time. What we find is that shorter time periods really don't give people enough time to transition between varied activities and still feel productive."

Etkin said the results suggest that if we categorize our activities in certain ways, to make them seem more or less varied based on how much time we have, we can influence our happiness.

"The narrower the categories we have, the more differences we see between the activities and the more varied they seem," Etkin said. "The flip of that is to group activities in inclusive buckets if we want to see them as less varied and more similar."

Daunted by a few days alone with kids? Think of lunch, a playdate, a movie and dinner as separate events to increase the feeling of variety. Only got a few hours to change oil, pay bills, shop for groceries and do laundry? Group them all as together as household tasks to feel more productive.

"That will make you feel happier at the end of that time regardless of how varied those activities actually were," Etkin said. "The important thing is understanding that in addition to a positive effect on how stimulating and engaging we find our time, variety can have this negative effect on how we feel about our productivity. In the end, happiness is about striking a balance."

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