Work Culture

"Time affluence" is at an all-time low, and it’s making us miserable


Published on December 06, 2019

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“Time affluence” is at an all time low in the United States. A survey of 2.5 million Americans revealed that 80% of them did not have the time to do everything they needed to do each day. 

“This situation is so severe it could be described as a ‘time famine’—a collective cultural failure to effectively manage our most precious resource, time,” Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

People who are short on time (or who feel like they are short on time) are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and less happy than people who feel like they have lots of free time.

The survey of Americans found that time stress has more of a negative impact on happiness than being unemployed—generally considered one of the worst stressors for adults. More broadly, this so-called time famine directly accounts for billions of dollars in productivity costs to companies each year, and secondary costs increase that metric by many multiples. Public health officials rank time stress as one of the top contributors to rising obesity rates. In total, the health care costs of time stress are valued at $48 billion dollars each year.

Yet there is very little evidence to suggest that people are actually busier than before. Rather, they feel busier. 

Why do we feel like we are starving for time? And how can we satiate our hunger?

Our cultural compulsion to make as much money as possible provides some answers.

How we experience time varies wildly. 

Time frames our lives

Time underlies our experience on Earth. It regulates human life and behavior. We view events as proceeding chronologically. We structure our days, months, and years, around the clock and calendar. Even inside our own bodies, internal pacemakers control biological cycles.

“Time underlies a person’s constant stream of experiences, it structures one’s daily schedule, and it is ultimately time that measures a person’s life,” Cassie Mogilner, a professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management, wrote in Science Direct.

It’s exactly because time is so pervasive that it often goes unnoticed. Rather than optimize for this resource by using it intentionally, we squander it without even realizing that is what we are doing.

“When we talk to ourselves about how we can't do this, or we need to do this other thing, or we need to worry about another thing, we are making it so that we are doing a bad job at the thing we're doing in that moment,” Dr. Acacia Parks, chief scientist at the science-based wellness app Happify, tells Dropbox.

How we experience time varies wildly. This “psychological time” is discrete and non-continuous, non-linear, and highly contextualized. For instance, the 22 minutes of running a 5k road race creep by far slower than binging a quippy 22-minute episode of The Office.

“Time does not pass with a steady-paced flow,” Dr. Marc Witmann, author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time, wrote in Philosophical Transactions. “Perceptual time is not isomorphic to physical time, meaning that the subjective passage of time and estimates of duration vary considerably. Time judgements are inherently emotional.”

We need to feel happy day-to-day, but we also need to find long-term meaning. And happiness and meaning are often at odds.


When people say they want more time, what they often mean is they want more memories—specifically happy memories. We all want to be happy. As 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal noted, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.”

But what is happiness?

“There are two components to happiness,” says Parks. “One is feeling happy emotionally by experiencing more happy emotions than negative emotions in your day-to-day life. The other is thinking that your life is good. There's a thinking part and a feeling part, and if a person both feels pretty good in most of their day to day life, and when they take stock of their life, thinks it's pretty good, then we say a person is happy.”

Truly finding happiness in life involves a deeper assessment of how you spend your time. 

We need to feel happy day-to-day, but we also need to find long-term meaning. And happiness and meaning are often at odds. Working hard to build a business can feel meaningful and fulfilling, but those long hours, financial risks and make-or-break decisions may come at the expense of short-term happiness. Delineating between happiness and meaning proves crucial in allocating time wisely to find fulfillment in life.

“There has to be balance between short-term happiness and meaning,” Park explains. “There's no excuse for spending five years of your life not sleeping and not eating properly and not exercising. That's a myth that we tell ourselves: that there's some level of busy where it's excusable to treat ourselves in that way.”

Research shows most of us have more free time now than 50 years ago, even though it doesn’t feel like it. Part of this misperception comes from the digitization of society.

Tension between time and money

But striking this balance can be extremely tricky—and often times, the biggest hurdle is financial. Both time and money feel like scarce and precious resources. We often feel like we have to choose between the two. Should you pay for an expensive and expedient Uber ride, or should you take the cheaper, crowded bus that may or may not show up on time? Should you take the promotion with a higher salary even though it comes with more hours spent at the office? 

Most people choose more money when given the choice. In a study of thousands of Americans, 64% said they wanted more money as opposed to more time. This preference largely stems from cultural precedent, Parks tells us. And this prioritization is to our detriment.

“Everybody likes to brag about their 80-hour work week like that's a good thing,” she says. 

“But there's all this research that finds that after five or six hours, we can't pay attention anymore. I don't care what you're doing, your brain's going to be fried by the last two hours. So, are we even doing anything valuable?”

“Busy-ness” has turned into a status symbol, signifying competence, ambition, and desirability. We equate wide open days with a lack of purpose and meaning.

But research shows that those who feel time-poor experience lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress and diminished productivity at work.

Time confetti

More time feels like less than it once did. Research shows that most of us actually have more free time now than 50 years ago, even though it doesn’t feel like it. Part of this misperception comes from the digitization of society. Incessant pings from our phones, rewiring in our brains, and a bombardment of information, ads, and communication fracture our attention and our time.

“A ubiquitous connection to the internet means that we experience ‘time confetti,’ Whillians wrote in HBR. “Not only are we trying to fill our time with more work and being more productive, but also our time is more fragmented. We’re more distracted, and that also contributes to these higher feelings of time stress.”

The internet and smartphones not only fracture our time, they embed guilt into our time. We are always connected, and always feel like we could be working. If you spend all of your time “relaxing” wrought with guilt that you’re not working, you aren’t actually relaxing at all. That time simply gets sucked into the vortex of stress.

So more than likely, you’re actually using your free time to work. Most of us are guilty of checking our email in bed. And more than 50% of American’s do not use their paid vacation time each year.

“We're capable of doing a lot more than we used to be in terms of accessing knowledge,” Parks tells us. “You can just kind of Google whatever you want in terms of accessing work. If I'm home sick, I'm still expected to work now because I can.”

Making time count

We need to have some sense of urgency to find happiness and meaning. As we age, for example, we grow more attuned to how to wisely allocate time. This phenomenon, called socioemotional selectivity theory, posits that as we grow older, our focus shifts from feeling like our future is infinite to finite. As we gain a better appreciation for our limited time on earth—and sense the finish line drawing closer—we reorient our goals from long-term ones to short term emotional satisfaction. 

“As people age, they become more aware of the fact that life is short, and they don't have that much time left,” Parks explains, “and there's only so much BS they're willing to put up with.”

This shift in values brings us more stable and positive emotional experiences in daily life. In addition, we focus on more positive than negative information, and prioritize meaningful activities over those related to individual achievement. Taken together, these qualities confer us with a wealth of social capital, the currency of happiness. 

The good news is that we can start to build our social capital before our hair turns white and our faculties slow down.

Focusing on time, not money, helps. Studies show that people who prefer having more time over more money are happier, even when controlled for the amount of time and money they already have.

Spend the time you do have deliberately. Share it with loved ones, and savor life’s ordinary moments. Parks also advocates for practicing mindfulness. 

“Mindfulness is doing a single thing, and doing it 100%, paying attention to that thing and just being in the moment with that thing,” Parks tells us. “And when we talk to ourselves about how we can't do this, or we need to do this other thing, or we need to worry about another thing, we are making it so that we are doing a bad job at the thing we're doing in that moment.” 

Buy time, but not too much. Think about what tasks you hate doing and outsource them. But keep performing tasks you enjoy. If you hate cleaning, hire cleaners. But if you love cooking, don’t buy a meal kit service. Conversely, give a little time away by volunteering and helping others. 

But sowing seeds for time wealth cannot only happen at an individual level. The time famine largely stems from the apex of corporate pyramids. CEOs, managers, and leaders shape social norms, the unwritten rules that govern our behavior. And social norms say we should prioritize money over time.

Companies not only need to value their employees’ time, they also need their leaders to practice what they preach. People on every level of the corporate hierarchy need to take responsibility upon themselves to prioritize wellness.

“I especially recommend that the people at the upper echelons of a company are seen following policies that support work-life balance,” Parks tells us. “Because what can happen is, there'll be a policy, everybody takes an hour for lunch, but then the boss is working through lunch. And then everybody else is thinking, ‘Oh. Well, crap. Then we should work through lunch.’ And nobody actually follows the policy. So, people need to see people actually using it.”

Parks sets the tone of prioritizing wellness in her own department by making her weekly appointment with her psychologist visible to her employees on her public calendar. 

In addition to setting the precedent that wellness and work-life balance are valorized, companies can give time-based rewards (with a cash-value). And they can promote taking more vacation time. 

“I think that the onus is on companies to say, ‘Look, it's okay to do this.’” Parks tells us. “HR departments have great opportunities to improve talent recruitment and retention by helping employees be time savvier and showing prospective hires that they promote time affluence for workers.”

Time affluence

While money is obviously crucial, once you cross a threshold it does not buy happiness. Rather than optimize for money, we would all benefit from optimizing for quality time. If you want to be happy, use your money to spend your time intentionally. 

“This is not about working hard,” Arianna Huffington wrote in an open letter to self-confessed workaholic Elon Musk on her Thrive Global website. “It’s about working in a way that allows you to make your best decisions.”

She argues that working 120-hour weeks does not allow your strengths to shine; it squanders them. Our bodies and brains cannot simply work at maximum capacity indefinitely.

“Nobody knows better than you that we can’t get to Mars by ignoring the laws of physics,” Huffington continued. “Nor can we get where we want to go by ignoring scientific laws in our daily lives.”