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Happiness Means Being Just Rushed Enough

The image of the increasingly time-crunched American is wrong—and being less rushed does not always mean being happier
exasperation, time rush, time crunched



iStock / tumpikuja

“Everybody knows” that the pace of daily life is speeding up, accelerated by the proliferation of mobile phones, tablets, WiFi and other communication technologies and by fallout from the 2007 economic crisis. As if anyone needed reminding of this trend, book titles echoing the faster-paced theme include The Overworked American and Busy Bodies in the early 1990s through to Faster, Fighting for Time, and Busier Than Ever.

However, despite this broad consensus, and its obvious health and quality-of-life implications, there seems little empirical survey evidence that daily life is truly speeding up. Some 15 years ago, in compiling our book Time for Life, my coauthor and I were only able to locate three short measures of subjective time pressure in the public: “stress” questions developed by the US National Institutes of Health (since discontinued); a “time crunch” scale of 10 yes-no questions (also abandoned); and two questions we had included in the initial time-use national survey conducted by the University of Michigan in 1965. These questions first asked respondents how often they felt “rushed,” and then how often they had time on their hands they didn’t know what to do with.

In that 1965 survey, we found 24 percent of respondents aged 18-64 said they “always” felt rushed, and 48 percent said they had no excess time. When we repeated the questions in the 1990s, these figures had risen to 35 percent “always” rushed and 55 percent with no excess time, where they remained, more or less, until we last asked the questions in a 2004 survey.

This set the stage, then, for our repeating these questions in two separate surveys in 2009-10. Quite contrary to our expectations, both of these surveys now show decreases in Americans feeling “always” rushed particularly among the busiest group of those aged 18 to 64 — a 7-point drop in feeling always rushed to 28 percent — and a drop to 45 percent in those feeling no excess time.

This decrease in felt time pressure since 2004 may reflect the “Great American Slowdown,” headlined in the April 10, 2008 issue of the Economist, based strictly on the performance of the economy and not the public’s response to it. It seems mirrored as well in the Great Slowdown in geographic migration noted by demographer William Frey in 2010. In the same vein, three of the main changes noted in the annual reports of the Americans’ Time Use Survey since 2007 have been a decline in shopping time along with increases in sleep time and in free time, especially TV viewing.

Both of these time-pressure questions have important implications for how Americans feel about the quality of their lives. The percent of Americans who say they are “very happy” remained a remarkably steady social indicator between 1972 to 2008, averaging about 33 percent. However, in the 2010 survey, it dropped 5 points to 28 percent, its lowest level since 1972 (and mirroring declines in other indicators of their life quality as well).

As in previous surveys the happiest people in 2009-10 are more likely to report themselves both as less rushed and with no excess time. Moreover, these higher levels are not simply due to both groups having higher income, being married, being older or other demographic predictors of happiness.

Perhaps more important is how the two questions work in combination. Almost 50 percent of respondents who feel least rushed and who also feel least excess time report being “very happy”, almost twice as high as the rest of the US public. It is an elite group, making up less than 10 percent of the population. They not only seem happier by ignoring the “rat race” and subscribing to a philosophy of “Don’t hurry, be happy,” but by organizing their lifestyles to minimize spells of boredom and lack of focus as well. Thus, there seems dysfunction in having either too much or too little free time. In a society that otherwise seems obsessed with speed and the latest IT gadgets, this would seem to offer a path to a more contented lifestyle.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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