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January 18, 2010

Study: ‘Weekend effect’ makes people happier regardless of job

From construction laborers and secretaries to physicians and lawyers, people experience better moods, greater vitality, and fewer aches and pains from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, concludes the first study of daily mood variation in employed adults. Published online in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the study indicates that “weekend effect” is largely associated with the freedom to choose your activities and the opportunity to spend time with loved ones, the research found.

“Workers, even those with interesting, high-status jobs, really are happier on the weekend,” says author Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology. “Our findings highlight just how important free time is to an individual’s well-being.” Ryan adds. “Far from frivolous, the relatively unfettered time on weekends provides critical opportunities for bonding with others, exploring interests, and relaxing—basic psychological needs that people should be careful not to crowd out with overwork.”

The study tracked the moods of 74 adults, aged 18 to 62, who worked at least 30 hours per week. For three weeks, participants were paged randomly at three times during the day—once each in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. At each page, participants completed a brief questionnaire describing the activity in which they were engaged and, using a seven-point scale, they rated their positive feelings like happiness, joy, and pleasure as well as negative feelings of anxiety, anger, and depression. Physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, digestive problems, respiratory ills, or low energy, also were noted.

The results demonstrated that men and women alike consistently felt better mentally and physically on the weekend. They felt better regardless of how much money they made, how many hours they worked, how educated they are, or whether they worked in the trades, the service industry, or in a professional capacity. They felt better whether they were single, married, living together, divorced, or widowed. And, they felt better regardless of age.

To find out exactly why weekend hours were so magical, the researchers asked participants to indicate whether they felt controlled versus autonomous in the task they were engaged in at the time of the pager signal. Participants also indicated how close they felt to others present and how competent they perceived themselves to be at their activity.

The findings indicated that relative to workdays, weekends were associated with higher levels of freedom and closeness: people reported more often that they were involved in activities of their own choosing and spending time with more intimate friends and family members. Surprisingly, the analysis also found that people felt more competent during the weekend than at their day-to-day jobs.

The results support self-determination theory, which holds that well-being depends in large part on meeting basic psychological need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This study, conclude the authors, “offers one of the first substantive and theory-based explanations for why well-being tends to be more favorable on the weekends: People experience greater autonomy and relatedness, which are, in turn, related to higher wellness.” By contrast, write the authors, the work week “is replete with activities involving external controls, time pressures, and demands on behavior related to work, child care, and other constraints.” Workers also may spend time among colleagues with whom they share limited emotional connections.

The study also raises questions about how work environments can be structured to be more supportive of wellness. “To the extent that daily life, including work, affords a sense of autonomy, relatedness, and competence, well-being may be higher and more stable, rather than regularly rising and falling,” the researchers conclude.

The weekend effect study was coauthored by Jessey Bernstein, a professor of psychology from McGill University, and Kirk Warren Brown, a professor of psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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