Does Variety Make Us Happier?

We have all heard the expression, “Variety is the spice of life.”  Is it true?  Do we value variety highly?  Does it make us happier?  There are a few key characteristics that affect outcomes such as job satisfaction, intrinsic motivation, and quality of work produced.  One of those job characteristics is skill variety. If a job required employees to employ a variety of skills and capabilities, that had a positive effect on these key outcomes.

Variety has a positive impact, but only if that variety does not occur in a very short period of time. When we fill longer time periods with varied activities, it feels stimulating and makes us happier with that time. But when we jam variety into hours and minutes, that reduces happiness because it takes away from our sense of productivity. That’s true even if we get done what we were trying to get done. If we switch between very different things in a short amount of time, we don’t feel as if we’ve accomplished as much.

Therefore, it seems the pivot point is around a day. Over longer periods of time — a day, a week or a month — spending time on more varied activities does lead people to feel happier afterwards. But over shorter time periods — an hour, 30 minutes or 15 minutes — people feel less happy after spending time on more varied things.

So, if we categorize our activities in certain ways, to make them seem more or less varied based on how much time we have, we can influence our happiness. The narrower the categories we have, the more differences we see between the activities and the more varied they seem. The flip of that is to group activities in inclusive buckets if we want to see them as less varied and more similar.

Summing-up: When people think about variety, they think it’s exciting, stimulating and interesting. But we also derive a lot of happiness and satisfaction from feeling we accomplished something with our time. Shorter time periods really don’t give people enough time to transition between varied activities and still feel productive. In the end, happiness is about striking a balance.

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