According to research into the lives of those who report having little free time, the answer is: not much. Across all income levels, people who feel time-strapped (regardless of their actual schedules)—deemed by researchers to be time-poor or in time famine—are consistently shown to be less happy and more stressed than people who feel like they have enough time to do what they enjoy (and are considered time-rich or in time affluence).
Such results suggest, in literal semantics, that we should start thinking about time much like we do money, as a resource to be stockpiled and coveted and one with real power to enhance our well-being. From there, it only follows that, to be happier and healthier, we should pursue the luxury of spare time, rather than just going after the most money. Indeed, prioritizing time over money has been linked with greater subjective well-being, regardless of income.
Prioritizing time over money has been linked with greater subjective well-being, regardless of income.
That said, being able to pursue free time naturally requires some money. You'll need enough to meet your basic needs, which researchers say generally happens with an annual income of $75,000, on average. After that point, however, the well-being benefit of having more money tapers off. And yet, because we’re conditioned to think that time equals money, we continue to invest more time in the pursuit of wealth, says psychologist Laurie Santos, PhD, host of The Happiness Lab podcast and professor of Yale's popular happiness course, The Science of Well-Being. In other words, getting money-rich is making us time-poor—which could leave us feeling worse off overall.
Why does being in time famine decrease happiness and well-being?
If you’ve ever felt the pressure of not having enough hours in the day to do what you need to do, much less what you want to do, you know firsthand the impact of time famine. Spending the majority of the day trying to just make it through your to-do list without ever feeling like you have the time to take a break can cause stress and burnout, both of which can diminish mental health.
Part of the reason why a time-strapped state of being is so taxing is because of how it interferes with our ability to effectively prioritize, says Julie Frumin, LMFT, life-balance counselor at the Center for Health & Wellbeing at Four Seasons Westlake Village. “When we feel like we don't have enough time, we’re not as capable of pursuing multiple goals in order of their importance because we're not as introspective and we can’t listen to our bodies as well.” Indeed, research has shown that time-poor people are also less likely to engage in health activities (like eating nutritiously and exercising), which are known to support happiness and well-being.
In the process of hurrying from one task to the next, “we also miss opportunities to connect with others,” says psychiatrist Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, MD, chief innovation officer at virtual coaching platform BetterUp and co-author of TOMORROWMIND. “Because connection is essential for well-being, any mindset that works against it will decrease well-being.”
Just as we bypass supportive social opportunities, we’re also less likely to volunteer to help others when we’re time-famished. To explain why, Frumin cites an experiment from the 1970s, in which social scientists John Darley and Daniel Batson told 40 students at the Princeton Theological Seminary that they’d be giving a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan in a room across campus. What the students didn’t know is that they’d encounter a person who appeared to need help on the way (an actor set up by the researchers). The catch? One group was told they were already late and should hurry; another group was told that they should head right over; and the last group was told to head over, but that there was no rush to get there.
“Being in a hurry can cause us not to direct our focus outward or even consider the world at large.” —Julie Frumin, LMFT, therapist
As it turned out, the different ways in which the theology students were primed to think about their time had a significant impact on whether they stopped to help the “victim”—despite the fact that they were literally about to give a sermon on the topic of helping people in need. While 63 percent of the students in no rush stopped to help, just 45 percent of those in the “head over now” group and 10 percent of those in the “you’re already late” group did the same.
“Being in a hurry can cause us not to direct our focus outward or even consider the world at large and whether we might help somebody in distress,” says Frumin, “and yet, those acts of kindness are known to help us feel considerably better.”
If time famine is so bad for well-being, how did we even wind up here?
You might think we all just have more stuff to do these days and less time to do it, putting us in a perpetual state of feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day. But time-diary studies suggest we have more discretionary time these days. What the experts suspect is causing our current sense of time famine is the pursuit of status—which, in this country, is defined largely by productivity, busyness, and, yes, money.
“We’ve developed this mindset that what we do and achieve is what makes us worthy,” says Frumin. “When we start to feel ‘less than,’ the behavior that comes out of that is to push, push, push and be continually busy, as opposed to considering, ‘Well, what if I was enough as is? Then, what would I do to fill my time?’”
The answer to that question may be any number of “just because” activities that bring joy, like taking long lunches or midday naps, having conversations with friends, daydreaming, going for a walk, and so on. But within our so-called cult of productivity, such behaviors are consistently devalued in favor of busyness.
The influence of technology on our time can also make it feel as if there’s always something you could or should be doing, further contributing to a state of time famine. “There’s this feeling of, ‘I need to just check one more email’ or ‘I have to just reply to this ping right now,’ and it can feel satisfying to do that, but it’s more of a compulsion than something we’re consciously choosing,” says Dr. Kellerman. And the more compelled we feel to engage with these different demands on our attention, the more it can feel like there’s just not enough time for it all.
How to have more time affluence, no matter how busy you are
1. Do a time audit and consider what tasks are taking up outsize time
Time famine is about feeling like you don’t have enough time to do things you enjoy—not necessarily having a packed calendar. But naturally, those two things often do go hand-in-hand, and for people who have objectively busier schedules and more work and life responsibilities, achieving time affluence could require some actual time management.
The first step to that is figuring out how you’re currently using every bit of time that you have by doing what Frumin calls a time audit. “What that can look like is, over the span of a couple work days, every half hour, have a timer go off on your phone, and write down what you did during that half hour,” she says. “Looking back over it can offer a lot of insight into just how much time you’re spending doing certain activities and whether some things might be taking up more of your time than they’re worth.”
Just having that information can help you figure out whether there are certain time-sucks you can reduce or eliminate from your calendar.
2. Buy back time by outsourcing tasks you don’t like
If feeling like you have more time to do what you love is a better predictor of happiness than having more money, then it would follow that one of the best uses of any disposable money is to buy…time. “Studies show that people who spend money to get more free time are often happier than those who don’t,” says Dr. Santos. And by that, she means paying money to spare yourself from time-consuming tasks—for example, paying someone to clean your home, walk your dog, or babysit your kid; spending money on takeout to save the time it would’ve taken you to cook; spending more on rent so you can spend less time commuting, and so on.
“Studies show that people who spend money to get more free time are often happier than those who don’t.” —Laurie Santos, PhD, psychologist and happiness researcher
While this is certainly easier to do for those who have more disposable income, the concept applies in low-value scenarios, too. For example, if you just have $25 extra to spend in a month, can you use it to pay your neighbor’s kid to mow your lawn (and give yourself back an hour of time) rather than to buy a material item?
Frumin also suggests leaning on your community to outsource certain tasks at zero cost, in exchange for offering to do the same in return. For instance, could another parent at your child’s school pick up your kid one day and bring them to an after-school activity? Even that single task could grant you back an hour of time for something you want to do—and every bit of discretionary time contributes to your overall sense of time affluence.
3. Be deliberate with the time you buy yourself
Part of the reason why time-saving purchases like ordering takeout or paying for a house cleaner have been shown to boost happiness in the study above isn’t just because they reduce the number of to-dos on your agenda; they can also restore your sense of agency over your time. But you have to claim that agency by recognizing the extra time you’ve bought yourself and being deliberate about how you use it.
That’s to say, if you get takeout and then just use the time you would’ve spent cooking by answering emails or doing some other need-to-do task, you’re not going to feel any greater sense of time affluence. But if you choose, instead, to view the time you’ve gained by ordering takeout as an opportunity to do something you enjoy or that reflects a personal value, like reading or taking a walk or meditating, you’ll certainly wind up feeling more time-rich.
That’s because, as tough as it can be to recognize for the constantly time-famished, time affluence is as much a mindset as it is a reality. “You can have two people who have exactly the same schedule and exactly the same responsibilities, and one lives in time affluence and one lives in time famine,” says Dr. Kellerman. The point is, time affluence isn’t just about how much objective free time you have; it’s about how you perceive it and what you do with it, she says.
4. Make good use of “time confetti”
Sure, you may not have ample free time within reach or much discretionary income to buy it. But what everyone has from time and again is something that Dr. Santos calls time confetti: those little pockets of free time that we find ourselves with throughout the day, for instance, when a meeting ends a few minutes early or you arrive a few minutes early to an appointment. As the name implies, these bits of time are a gift, and making good use of them as such—not to be productive, but to do something you want to do—can support your sense of time affluence.
“Rather than using those five minutes when the Zoom meeting ends early to check your email, use it to call a friend, take a deep breath, or even do a quick meditation,” Dr. Santos suggests.
Whatever you choose to do, make sure it’s a deliberate choice of something you’ll enjoy. The point is to see this time confetti as usable time for you, rather than to see it as time to kill or as time that you need to devote to your to-do list.
5. Give some of your time to others
Right now, you’re reading this thinking: But I already feel time-pressed…why should I give time away? But the paradox is, giving time to others has been shown to increase a person’s sense of time affluence, says Dr. Kellerman.
In a study analyzing how different behaviors affect time affluence, people who gave time to others experienced more time affluence than those who were instructed to waste the same amount of time, those who used the time on themselves, and even those who were given a time windfall. As for why? The researchers suspect that offering up your time to someone in need increases your sense of self-efficacy, making you feel like you accomplished a lot with the time, and in turn, that you have more time to spare (even if that's objectively not true).
Dr. Kellerman also speculates that when we’re spending time helping someone, we’re acting from a place of generosity, which puts us in a different frame of mind—one that’s more connected to our values and what really matters to us and less worried about checking a task off a list. “From that viewpoint, it’s easier to see that so many things that perhaps you thought you needed to get done in a particular day don’t actually have to happen, and you can afford to spend some of your time on things that you know your most centered self would want.”
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