Why 15-minute projects can make you a happier person

Jordana Divon

Here’s a short list of things you could accomplish in the next 15 minutes:

You could watch half an episode of “Friends,” make a decent avocado sandwich or if you follow the teachings of pop culture icon Andy Warhol, you could go through your entire lifecycle of fame.

While these activities may provide a momentary distraction (or at the very least fill your belly), what if we told you that you could contribute to your long-term happiness by doing a 15-minute web search on the history of pineapples?

These quick 15-minute projects aren’t mindless diversions: they’re actually good for your health.

Studies show engaging in something as simple as a 15-minute spurt of intellectual activity – like researching a topic that interests you online – can significantly boost your mood and promote overall well-being.

“There’s lots of research showing short term bursts of emotion can have long-term effects,” says psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, whose book, The How of Happiness, explores the applications of different happiness-inducing strategies.  “So we shouldn’t downplay [these emotions] just because they’re short term.”

According to Lyubomirsky, taking a few minutes to tackle a productive, mentally absorbing pursuit can propel us into “flow,” a positive-affect state that’s often triggered by deep engagement with a subject or activity.

“When you’re in the flow, you’re absorbed in what you’re doing – you’re so absorbed that you lose track of time and lose track of yourself … When we’re really engaged in learning, we’re in flow and that makes us feel positive,” she says.

That means you can abolish all guilt over reading up on your favourite hockey team’s playoff chances at work.  As long as you limit your diversion to a brief stretch of time, you can tell your boss you’re actually adding to the company’s productivity.

You might achieve something intellectually that makes you feel good, which in turn makes you [act] nicer toward your husband or makes you come up with a great idea at work,” says Lyubomirsky.

The beauty of the 15-minute project lies in its perfect combination of work and play. We tend to associate intellectual activity with great exertion, so by focusing on subjects that we find personally compelling, we trick our brain into learning while at the same time experiencing pleasure. 

These jolts of new information can also break up the sameness of our daily routine and make us feel we’re developing as individuals. 

In technical terms, the 15-minute project fits in to what psychologists call the Self-Determination Theory, which states that all humans have three major needs we must satisfy to feel fulfilled. 

“The first is autonomy, or the need to feel you can do things and have control; the second is competence, or the need to master things; and the third is connectedness, to relate to other people,” Lyubomirsky explains.  “So I would say this activity is really relevant to the first two needs, and satisfying those needs makes people happy.”

By continuing to learn new things, even something as minor as a new way to plant tomatoes, we generate positive feelings of both accomplishment and control.  The long-term effects of these interest interludes can range from increased creativity to more physical energy.

So go ahead and take the next 15 minutes to look up something you’ve always wanted to know. 

You may even want to use the time to read more of Lyubomirsky’s ideas on how to increase your long-term happiness.