People who pursue happiness tend to feel like they don’t have enough time in the day, and this paradoxically makes them feel unhappy, according to a new study published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Researchers from the U.S. and Canada conducted four experiments in which they studied how the pursuit of happiness, as well as the state of being happy, influenced people’s perception of time. They discovered that the act of pursuing happiness caused the participants to think of time as scarce.
“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” said researchers Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University and Sam Maglio, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto Scarborough. “This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being.”
For the study, some participants were encouraged to think of happiness as a goal they needed to attain. These participants were either asked to make a list of things that would make them happy, or they were prompted to try to make themselves feel happy while watching a dull movie about building bridges.
The rest of the participants came to think of happiness as a goal that they had already achieved, by watching a slapstick comedy (rather than the bridge movie) or by listing items in their lives that have already brought them happiness. Next, all participants reported how much free time they felt they had.
The findings reveal that a person’s perception of time scarcity is influenced by their pursuit of (often unattainable) happiness. Participants who felt they had attained their goal of being happy were less likely to feel that time was scarce.
According to the researchers, the findings suggest that while happiness can impair positive emotions, it need not necessarily do so. Instead, if someone believes they have achieved happiness, they are left with the time to appreciate this, for instance by keeping a gratitude journal.
The study also highlights the fact that people have different concepts of happiness, which in turn may well influence how they perceive the time they have to achieve happiness.
“Because engaging in experiences and savoring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoying leisure experiences,” said the researchers, who add that feeling pressed for time often also makes people less willing to spend time helping others or volunteering.
“By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness.”