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Scientifically proven ways to make your weekend happier

September 4, 2015, 1:00 PM UTC
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VARKALA, INDIA - DECEMBER 21: Tourist woman reading a book in a hammock surrounded by palmtrees on December 21, 2014 in Varkala, Kerala, India (Photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images)
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News flash: research finds that people are generally happier on weekends than weekdays. However, some weekends — even a long holiday weekend, like Labor Day — may not be as enjoyable as it could be. The ho-hum sort disappear into the chores and errands you didn’t do because you were stuck late at work all week. Better ones recharge your batteries and spark some new memories, so you hit Monday ready to go.

Here are scientifically-based, research-backed strategies for making weekends richer and more enjoyable.

1. Dream up the mix right.

One study that measured people’s happiness through the day found they were happiest while socializing, exercising, and engaging in spiritual activities (in addition to the perhaps more obvious “eating” and “intimate relations”). Knowing this can give structure to your “what are we doing this weekend?” conversation. Spend some time pondering what specific activities you’d love to do in each category. “Happiness is very particular to the individual or family so I think your best bet at having a happier weekend is to examine your past behavior to see what actually gives you happiness, versus what other people—or even you—think gives you happiness,” says Peter Bregman, author of Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want. “Consider your top 2-3 fun weekends. What were you doing? What were you not doing?” Granted, if your top 2-3 fun weekends involved trips to Paris, that may not happen on an average Saturday, so you might also “think about your last 5 weekends. What did you do during those weekends that made you happy?” Make a good long list of possibilities to consider in the near future.

2. Create a rough plan.

One study of vacationers found they were happier than people who weren’t going on holidays, but not after the trip. The happiness boost came before the vacation, as visions of sipping drinks with little umbrellas improved people’s moods even during rainy commutes. The take-away: anticipation accounts for the lion’s share of human happiness. By planning your weekend before you’re in it, you can anticipate your fun. That doesn’t mean you need to plan every minute and send calendar invites for dinner. “Give yourself permission to have a checklist instead of a firm schedule,” says Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment. But a rough plan allows you to deal with logistics such as inviting friends over, making reservations, or buying tickets. It also keeps you from succumbing to the temptation to “do nothing” — which is impossible. You’ll do something, just probably not something you’d choose if you’d thought ahead.

3. Build in down time.

One review of the literature on daydreaming found that this mental wandering is necessary for good psychological functioning “You need time to yourself to relax, refresh, and rejuvenate,” says Laura Stack, author of What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do, and other productivity books. It’s not always easy to block in time for relaxing in the hammock, but it can be done, even if you have kids whose sports practices and birthday parties could consume the whole weekend. Trade off time with your spouse, or trade off playdates with a friend if you’re parenting solo. “Do what you love, whether it’s a bike ride or a round of golf. The money invested is well worth the decreased stress level you will experience,” says Stack.

4. Minimize the have-to-dos.

The same study that measured well-being through the day found that working and housework landed pretty low on the happiness scale. How to deal with these potential irritants? A happy weekend can include work, but not if it bleeds into everything else with email checks every 15 minutes. “If you have to do some professional work over the weekend, make it really clear when you will—or won’t—work,” suggests Saunders. “If you don’t want to work on work until Sunday night, own it and enjoy the rest of the weekend guilt free. If you want to get the extra work done first thing on Saturday, set aside time for the specific must-do items and then stop. Clarity keeps you out of the unfortunate situation where you’re not working but not really relaxing either.”

Housework and errands can likewise expand to fill all available space. Try consigning them to just one weekend day, and during as small a block of time as possible. Or, suggests Stack, “Use money to buy time.” Hiring a housekeeper might be cheaper than going out to eat as a family, something people often do mindlessly. “It’s the best investment in my energy I make and the last thing I would give up,” she says. (As for errands? Order everything you can online).

5. Plan something fun for late Monday.

One survey found that the vast majority of Americans experience “Sunday night blues,” and of those, 76% claim they are “really bad.” Even people who love their jobs can let worries about the workweek creep into what could still be enjoyable weekend time. To combat this, schedule something you truly enjoy for late Sunday afternoon or early evening. It doesn’t have to be elaborate (think pot luck, not formal dinner party) so you can turn in on time, but this simple decision extends the weekend. Rather than spending Sunday stressed, you spend it anticipating the fun still yet to come.