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How to make time expand

Researchers know ‘time affluence’ makes us happier. But time isn’t bendable — or is it?

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

It’s a problem so common it may qualify as a new American epidemic: We’ve got no time. Too busy. Overwhelmed by work, family obligations, and the fast-paced nature of a run-ragged world, many Americans — especially working adults, parents of young children, and those with college degrees, according to polls — feel strapped for time and are leading less happy lives as a result.

Researchers in the 1990s gave this familiar, if dreadful, feeling a name: time famine. More recently, they coined a term to describe the opposite: time affluence, that elusive feeling of being rich in time. Time affluence, it appears, has real benefits in our lives. If time famine can create a state of rolling personal crisis, studies have shown that feeling “time affluent” can be powerfully uplifting, more so than material wealth, improving not only personal happiness, but even physical health and civic involvement.

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The problem, of course, is that time is fixed. Unlike money, friends, or Twitter followers, time isn’t something that we can expand through harder work, increased effort, or better connections. No matter how much we organize, delegate, plan, or abbreviate, the resource in question remains decidedly finite: There are just 24 hours in the day. It is one of the world’s immutable limits.

Now, however, an intriguing strain of research is suggesting that time may be a more flexible asset than we realize — that even if we can’t add more hours into our days, we can actually affect how time-rich we feel. The findings — being published in two separate studies in the journal Psychological Science by different groups of leading researchers — seem to echo what anthropologists, psychologists, and economists have long believed: that we can exert control over our perceptions of time. What’s interesting about the new evidence, the researchers explain, is what it says about how we can gain that control.

The studies suggest that people need not quit their jobs, leave the city, or make other major lifestyle changes. According to the findings, we can achieve that same feeling through small acts, simple emotions such as awe, and even counterintuitive measures like spending time doing tasks for someone else — essentially giving time away. And the payoff appears to be big.

“It’s not just that people felt less impatient, which I guess you could say was sort of a predictable finding,” said Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic professor of marketing at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and a coauthor of one of the two studies, “but...they reported higher levels of subjective well being, that they actually felt better in their lives.”

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

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Time famine, a term first coined in the 1990s to describe the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it, is a serious problem for many Americans, many of whom would rather be rich in time than rich in money.

Time-poor people report being more stressed and less satisfied with their lives, and even money doesn’t appear to help.

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In 2008, the Pew Research Center asked middle-class Americans to prioritize what was important to them in their lives. Sixty-eight percent of people responded that having free time was very important — outpacing the importance of having children (62 percent), a successful career (59 percent), being married (55 percent), or being wealthy (12 percent). And upper and lower class respondents essentially gave the same answers, the Pew study noted.

Yet for all the research attention focused on the minutiae of our lives, relatively little has been paid to time. “Research hasn’t really focused on time to the same extent as it has on money, love, careers, and some of these other resources,” said Melanie Rudd, a doctoral candidate in the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. “It’s kind of surprising.” Especially considering how important time perception appears to be.

Time-poor people report being more stressed and less satisfied with their lives, and even money doesn’t appear to help. Figures from Gallup suggest that wealth has an inverse relationship with time famine. “The more cash-rich working Americans are,” a 2011 Gallup report on time concluded, “the more time-poor they feel.”

The problem has become the domain of a growing number of researchers, business school professors, and psychologists focused on time perception and the apparently significant role it plays in our daily lives. Two of them — Zoë Chance, at the Yale University School of Management, and Michael I. Norton, at Harvard Business School — knew from earlier research that people who donated money felt wealthier than those who didn’t. Along with Cassie Mogilner, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the group began to wonder if the same could possibly be true of time. Could people increase their feelings of time affluence by doing something counterintuitive: giving their time away? Even as she and her colleagues drafted the hypothesis, Chance admitted to being skeptical. “Most studies that you run as a researcher fail,” she said. “So we certainly would have bet on it failing.”

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

Instead, they found that the concept held true: Those who donated time, doing tasks for others, felt more time affluent than those who wasted time, gained a sudden windfall of free time, or lavished extra time on themselves, reading a book or getting a pedicure. “Spending time on another,” the paper concludes, “seemingly expanded the future.” The reason: By doing something for someone else, the researchers theorized, people seemed to feel effective and useful.

“It actually didn’t matter whether they were doing something for a friend of theirs, like helping paint their bathroom, or doing something for their spouse, like cooking their favorite dinner, or doing something more like volunteering,” said Mogilner, the study’s lead author. “Irrespective of who they spent that time on, they felt like they had more time than those who spent time on themselves.”

The other team of researchers — including Rudd, Aaker, and Kathleen D. Vohs — took a different approach to the same question, wondering if a single emotion might expand time for people. “I picked awe,” Rudd said, “because this emotion has this powerful ability to captivate people’s attention on the present.”

Unable to transport people to awe-inspiring places — say a waterfall, a mountain top, or even a sporting event — Rudd’s team showed participants awe-inspiring footage, asked them to write about a personal experience of awe or happiness, or had them read a story about ascending the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from high above the city. The participants were then surveyed about their thoughts on time with the results showing that even a small dose of awe “gave participants a momentary boost in life satisfaction” and the distinctive feeling that they had more time available. With awe, the researchers concluded, people become more “present,” living in the moment, not rehashing the past or fretting about the future. Our usual frame of reference has been altered and time seems to expand.

“Certainly, there are deadlines and things to do,” Rudd said. “But more often than not, our perception of how constricted our time is and the feeling we get from that is much more extreme than it actually should be. It’s out of line with reality.”

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Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

The term“time affluence” only entered the lexicon in the last several years, and it remains, for the moment, a relatively young field of study. Still, researchers believe the new time affluence studies carry powerful lessons for those starved for time. The solution may be as simple as tweaking our busy lives to allow space for big emotions, like awe, or little tasks, like helping a neighbor.

“When we’re doing tasks for ourselves, we’re constantly thinking about what’s left to do,” Chance said. “So even if it’s the same task, like say it’s shoveling the snow out of your own driveway, you’re not thinking about what you’ve just done and resting on your laurels. You’re thinking about how you have to shovel out the car and you have to drive to work on icy roads. We have this sense that the tasks in our own lives are never ending. So we get more of a sense of accomplishment when we do something for someone else.”

There may also be lessons for employers, especially in professions that increasingly demand around-the-clock connectivity via cellphone and e-mail. One 2009 study, published by Tim Kasser and Kennon M. Sheldon in the Journal of Business Ethics, tied time affluence to increased happiness, and its authors argued that “ethical” businesses should try to make this sort of affluence more possible for employees. “To this end,” the paper concluded, “managers, owners, boards of directors, and shareholders might change company policies regarding family leave, vacations, and overtime.”

Kasser and Sheldon were the first to acknowledge that such changes wouldn’t come easily. Powerful corporations, they noted, have often lobbied against new laws granting more personal time to workers, perceiving such policies as a threat to bottom-line profits. But at least one segment of corporate America should be taking interest in the new time affluence findings: marketing gurus.

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

Marketers spend a great deal of time and money trying to create positive environments for consumers and elicit warm feelings. And our perception of time plays a role in that calculus. “Who wants to go to the movies,” Rudd asked, “if you don’t have time to go the movies?” As such, don’t be surprised if awe-invoking commercials begin appearing on television screens near you. “Marketers who could benefit from having a consumer with this expanded perception of time,” Rudd said, “might benefit from specifically trying to elicit awe.”

It’s the cold, practical side of the new research. But the true implications are much larger than a marketing campaign. Our stress about feeling time-starved, the studies suggest, isn’t necessarily a result of being busy, of having too many commitments in the day. It could be at least partially a result of just thinking that we’re busy and giving in to that idea. “Ultimately, we only have 24 hours in a day,” Mogilner said, “and we have far less than that if we allow ourselves to sleep.” But with a few “subtle manipulations,” she pointed out, we can take some control over the ticking clock on the wall and realize, perhaps for the first time in a long while, that we’re not so busy after all.

Freelance writer Keith O’Brien is a former staff writer for the Globe and the author of the forthcoming book “Outside Shot,” chronicling one town’s lonely quest for basketball greatness. E-mail him at kobstory@gmail.com.
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