Positive psychologists today are uncovering a variety of features that affect our emotional wellbeing—and among the most fascinating is our relationship with time. Specifically, the extent to which we feel comfortable with time’s ceaseless flow—or instead feel rushed and pressured—seems an increasingly vital issue, affecting our mental and probably our physical health as well. As geographically distant countries become more closely linked temporally, and many of us communicate regularly with people across many time zones, the topic of “time affluence” as it’s now called will surely gain more salience.
In a way, of course, this issue is hardly new. For example, more than fifty years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt-- the wife of the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a beloved public figure after his death in 1945-- wrote a popular book of advice for young people. TitledYou Learn by Living, she offered her cogent views on such matters as ambition and achievement, study and self-discipline, and cultivating sincere social relationships. And, in a particularly insightful discussion about time management, Mrs. Roosevelt asserted, “We all have all the time there is. No one can tell you how to use your time. It is yours.”
Published in 1960, Mrs. Roosevelt’s book marked an era when two-hour workday lunches were common-- and futurists worried about how Americans would use their enormous, anticipated leisure in coming decades. Thanks to rapidly increasing automation-- involving both the workplace and home-- most social scientists were sure that employment pressures and household drudgery would greatly diminish. In their view, this situation would allow virtually everyone a plethora of recreational opportunities. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, many social scientists were expressing worry whether Americans (and eventually people in other countries too) would use their anticipated huge amount of leisure time productively for themselves and their society-- or spend it on aimless pursuits like television-watching, or worse, on heavy drinking or gambling.
Fast-forward to today-- -and this prediction seem laughable. Although belief in a society with immense leisure just-around- the corner remained salient for another few decades, experts eventually began changing their view. As early as 1981, the American psychologist David Elkind warned in The Hurried Child that children were now subjected to unprecedented rushing in their everyday lives. As a result, he stated, they would lose the ability to be creative and imaginative. A decade later, the future was looking so different that books with titles like sociologist Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure were common—but empirical data remained sparse.
Among the first social scientists to measure the problem was Dr. Leslie Perlow at the Harvard Business School-- and her descriptor time famine in 1999 quickly caught on professionally. Studying a team of software engineers who constantly felt they had too much to do and not enough time do it, Dr. Perlow insisted that corporations were actually crippling their workers’ productivity by placing them in “fast-paced, high-pressure, and crisis-filled” settings. She darkly observed, “Corporate lawyers investment bankers, computer programmers, and many other types of workers routinely work seventy- or eighty-hour weeks, putting in extra effort during particularly hectic times. These men and women, married and single, are stressed, exhausted, and even dying as a result of frantic schedules. They have insufficient time to meet all of the demands on them from work and their lives outside of work.” If corporate executives really wanted creative personnel, rather than human automatons, Dr. Perlow insisted, then much more free time was necessary. More recently, the American psychologists Tim Kasser and Kenneth Sheldon have developed the concept of time affluence: the sense that one regularly has ample time available. In findings that spanned four scientific studies, they found that, even after controlling for material wealth as a possible factor, the individual’s sense of time affluence was linked to greater happiness. Intriguingly, too, people who reported close relationships generally experienced greater time affluence than others. Based on such findings, the researchers concluded that having a sense of time affluence is beneficial for our mental health, physical health, and relationships with family members and friends.
Expanding upon such work, Dr. Cassie Mogilner of the Wharton School of Business and her colleagues experimentally found that-- seemingly paradoxically—our sense of time affluence increases when we spend time benevolently on others. How is this possible? In their view, it’s because such altruistic behavior boosts our self-esteem and self-confidence—and this, in turn, stretches out time in our minds. Ultimately, we become more likely to commit to future engagements, despite our busy schedules. As a follow-up article in the Harvard Business Review headlined, “You’ll feel less rushed if you give time away.”
How do experts actually strive for time affluence? As a married father with two teenage boys at home, Dr. Kasser answered my query by recounting, “Almost every year, I’ve consistently made arrangements with my college to work either 2/3 or 3/4 time, and get paid accordingly. For twelve years, my wife worked half-time for no more than 30 weeks a year. We made these decisions so that we had more time for our sons, our community involvement, each other, and ourselves. “
It’s an admirable lifestyle decision, and one that their sons will surely cherish as they enter into adulthood and plan to raise families on their own.
If you live in an urban setting in virtually any country in the world, it’s likely that you’ve experienced time famine within the past year. What to do? To enhance your sense of time affluence and resultant psychological well-being, I advise you to become more generous with the hours at your weekly disposal. Build into your weekly routine helping activities to benefit others-- whether family members, friends, or persons in your larger community. If you engage in any kind of volunteer work, your sense of available time will expand—so seek it out. Saunter and stroll rather than dash. As the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien wisely noted in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, “Not all who wander are lost.” Remember, the less you hoard your time, the more plentiful it will loom in your daily life.
Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at email@example.com