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Harvard business school professor: 5 activities can increase your happiness fast, and they're free

Take five minutes to “message someone important to you that you haven’t spoken to for a while.”

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Day to day, especially during economically strained times like the coronavirus pandemic, it's easy to prioritize having and making money above everything else. But Ashley Whillans, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of "Time Smart," has found that valuing time over money — even for just a few minutes a day — leads to an increase in happiness and well-being.

The research shows "over and over again that people who prioritize time report greater happiness than people who prioritize money," says Whillans. And "there are small strategies that we can all take, regardless of our station in life, regardless of our financial goals, that don't involve much time, maybe don't even involve any money, but can help all of us live a happier, more meaningful, and less stressed out life."

A shift in mindset can also improve your finances: Researchers have found that a more optimistic mindset helps with financial well-being.

Here are five free activities Whillans suggests doing that take no more than 10 minutes and can increase your happiness.

Organize your errands (5 minutes)

If you have five spare minutes between activities, "organize the small errands you need to complete and start checking them off," Whillans writes in her book.

"Planning what we have to do and when we are going to do it can reduce procrastination and help us feel less stressed out," she tells Grow. "When we feel stressed, we often get hung up on the big picture and so it is helpful to take a big issue and break it down into small, actionable steps."

Message someone important (5 minutes)

Another option if you have a few spare minutes is to "message someone important to you that you haven't spoken to for a while," Whillans writes.

"Mix it up," she says. "Send someone a funny photo or send them a picture of a pet or a fun memory that you had. … One of the benefits of experiences or social activities is that you get to relive them, so try to relive a positive experience that you've had with a friend or family member via a picture or short video."

Check your vacation day balance (5 minutes)

"Knowing how many days you have and thinking about what you might do with this can help you visualize actually following through and taking your paid vacation," says Whillans.

Americans are known to skimp out on vacation days. As many as "75% of Americans (pre-pandemic) did not take all of the vacation time they were owed," she says. "We need to visualize and plan to take our vacation to help encourage us to follow through, since disconnecting from work improves happiness and reduces stress."

[Research shows] over and over again that people who prioritize time report greater happiness than people who prioritize money.
Ashley Whillans
Author, 'Time Smart'

Watch relaxing nature videos (up to 10 minutes)

If you have a spare 10 minutes, Whillans suggests watching relaxing nature videos on the internet.

People who watched content from "Planet Earth II," a BBC series about wildlife, felt an increase in contentedness, joy, amusement, and curiosity, according to a 2017 University of California, Berkeley study. The videos also reduced feelings of fatigue, anger, and stress.

Write a journal entry (up to 10 minutes)

Whillans writes that "journaling can increase happiness."

Because journaling is a way to "gain control of your emotions," according to the University of Rochester, it can help manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with depression. It can also make you feel better by helping you prioritize problems, providing clarity on emotional triggers, and revealing some of your negative thought patterns.

"Prioritizing time is related to happiness more than most people expect," Whillans tells Grow. "How we can get to greater control over time and happiness doesn't necessarily involve major life decisions like quitting our jobs or moving to a different city."

Sometimes it just takes doing the right kind of activity for a few minutes a day.

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