In today’s multi-tasking, hyper-speed world, it can be a trick to remember what we did yesterday.

But a new method of reconstructing the previous day’s activities not only helps people remember how they spent their time, it also captures how they really felt about their activities.

The technique, described in the Dec. 3 issue of Science, provides insight into what people actually enjoy and what kinds of factors affect how happy we are with our lives. Some of the findings confirm what we already know while others are counter-intuitive. The researchers assessed how people felt during 28 types of activities and found that intimate relations were the most enjoyable, while commuting was the least enjoyable.



More surprisingly, taking care of their children was also among the less enjoyable activities, although people generally report that their children are the greatest source of joy in their lives. “When people are asked how much they enjoy spending time with their kids they think of all the nice things—reading them a story, going to the zoo,” said University of Michigan psychologist Norbert Schwarz, a co-author of the Science article. “But they don’t take the other times into account, the times when they are trying to do something else and find the kids distracting. When we sample all the times that parents spend with their children, the picture is less positive than parents expect. On the other hand, we also find that people enjoy spending time with their relatives much more than they usually assume.”



General reports of what people enjoy may also differ from descriptions of how people actually feel in a specific situation because many people hesitate to report socially inappropriate feelings. This is less of a problem when they report on specific episodes. “Saying that you generally don’t enjoy spending time with your kids is terrible,” Schwarz said, “but admitting that they were a pain last night is quite acceptable.” The new Day Reconstruction Method provides a better picture of people’s daily experiences by improving accurate recall of how they felt in specific situations.



By illuminating what kinds of activities, under what conditions and with what partners, are most likely to be linked with positive or negative feelings, the method has potential value for medical researchers examining the emotional burden of different illnesses and the health consequences of stress, according to Schwarz, who is a research scientist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).



For the study, researchers analyzed questionnaires completed by a convenience sample of 909 working women. Participants answered demographic and general satisfaction questions and were asked to construct a short diary of the previous day: “Think of your day as a continuous series of scenes or episodes in a film,” the directions began. After participants developed their diary, they answered a series of structured questions about each episode, including when it started and ended, what they were doing, where they were, with whom they were interacting, and how they felt. The study builds on earlier work on Americans’ use of time, initiated by ISR economist F. Thomas Juster.



The average number of daily activities participants reported was 14.1 and the average duration of each episode was 61 minutes.



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