Are you happier on the weekend?

Most people are, according to a new survey of 1,000 Americans about their “weekend state of mind.” The idea that most people are happier on the weekend than they are during the week is not particularly revolutionary, but weirdly, this finding made me realize that in some ways I’m actually happier during the week than I am on the weekends. (The survey was commissioned by Hampton Hotels, and I was paid as a consultant to review the results.)

I know that I’m lucky to get so much joy from my workweek and weeknights with my family. By comparison, though, the multi-tasking that weekend parenting often demands—as well as the sometimes near-total deviation from our comforting routines—can make me more cranky and irritable than I am during the week.

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My experience seems strange in that for the majority of people surveyed, happiness and feelings of satisfaction peak during the weekend, while stress drops dramatically. For example, 32 percent of respondents feel stressed out on Mondays, but only 8 percent on Saturdays.

It is worth noting, however, that in general parents don’t seem to reap all these benefits of the weekend: The survey found that parents are considerably more likely to feel exhausted during their weekend or anxious at the start of the weekend than are people without kids. So maybe my experience isn’t so strange.

The majority of survey respondents report pretty large “personality changes” over the weekend, saying that their “weekend personality” is more spontaneous, imaginative, creative, fun, and easy to be around—and that their “workweek personality” is more neurotic and less engaged. A third of participants say they are “a completely different person on the weekend.”

Reading about these “personality changes,” I had an “aha” moment: My weekend routine doesn’t always work for me.

I realize this probably would be blazingly obvious to anyone who knows my routine: frantically trying to run all my errands, carting kids to and from birthday parties and sporting events, fixing things around the house, paying bills and squeezing in some hasty gardening, getting caught up on email and grocery shopping and school forms—all while trying to “be present” for my children. But I’ve been so busy trying to master my weekends that I’ve forgotten how easy it should be to enjoy them—and I suspect I’m not alone.

As is the case for many parents, weekends are low-hanging fruits of happiness that I’ve been forgetting to pick. Drawing on related research, here are three ways to make weekends even happier.

(1) I’ll start with the obvious: Weekends are happier when we actually take time to rest. I often make my workweek less stressful by pushing work to the weekend. But that same work becomes much more stressful to do over the weekend, because then I’m generally trying to do it while hanging out with my kids.

Research shows that this sort of multi-tasking tends to result in more errors, and makes us feel more exhausted. To the extent that you can, don’t follow my lead here, because we humans need rest in order to be productive. We make better sprinters than marathoners when it comes to work. As much as we might like to be able to keep producing 24/7, our physical reality prevents this.

I love the traditions of the Sabbath and the sabbatical: Both recognize our human needs for rejuvenation. I used to practice these things regularly, if not religiously, and I’m going to start doing so again.

(2) Combat “Sunday Night Anxiety,” or what we affectionately call “sna” (pronounced snaah) among my friends and family. According to the Hampton Hotels survey, a lot of people feel their anxiety and stress levels rise again at the end of the weekend.

To combat SNA, I take time on Friday morning to update my task lists and—here is the key—make a plan for how and when I will complete the tasks. I learned to do this from Roy Baumeister’s review of research related to what psychologists call “the Zeigarnik effect”—the way that unfinished task items and unmet goals tend to pop repeatedly into our minds, causing stress, or SNA. You don’t actually have to complete a task for it to stop causing you anxiety, but you do have to tell your brain when you will do it.

(3) Make positive emotions about the weekend—like excitement and gratitude—work for you during the week. The sheer number of positive emotions we experience relative to negative ones affects how happy we are generally, and the weekends can be a great source of positive emotions, even during the week. When we consciously anticipate something fun we have planned for the weekend, we amplify our excitement about it, thereby increasing our positive emotions.

Then, after the weekend is over, we can squeeze more happiness out of it by recalling, or savoring, our favorite parts of the past weekend. Thirty-two percent of the participants in the Hampton survey reported that they felt stressed on Monday, which is also when most people start looking forward to the next weekend. Simply telling a co-worker about something you enjoyed over the weekend can make you feel happier, as can expressing gratitude for something you did.

Join the discussion: How do you make your weekends joyful?

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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