Like many of us, I have, all my life, struggled with time in one way or another. I seem to alternate between embracing flat-out activity and finding deeper pools of energetic sustenance. As a child, sensing the hyper-pressure around me, I began to actively resist. A self-taught procrastinator, at 19 I wrote an editorial entitled C.R.A.P. – the Creative Art of Procrastination – and got away with publishing it in the high school newspaper. Later, as a politicized youth in my twenties, I realized there were things really worth accomplishing, meaning that procrastinatory habits themselves had to be resisted. So I founded something called the PLF: the Procrastinators’ Liberation Front. We held dynamite victory parties celebrating when one of us accomplished something meaningful.
The Violence of Busy-nessAt the old age of 30, I moved from fast-paced New York City to Philadelphia, allegedly to “slow down,” seeing as how this is such a small town here. Nonetheless I found myself working 60-hour weeks at my beloved small press, New Society Publishers, while leading marches and facilitating peace movement meetings confronting the “first” Gulf War in 1990. By 1998 it had only gotten worse: with my then-husband, I cared for my mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s in our home, while working as executive director of a non-profit, responding as an activist to community crises, maintaining a small home business, and “sitting” on the board of another non-profit organization I had co-founded. Not to mention the stepson and the two dogs.
That load hardly made me the busiest person in the world, but it did make me hiss, every day, “Something’s gotta give,” and vow, every night, “Never again.” I found the busy-ness so toxic to my deep well-being that it went beyond busy-ness; it became, as theologian Thomas Merton put it, “a form of violence.” Perhaps I experienced what Ivan Seidenberg, former president of Bell Atlantic, only joked about:
“Using sophisticated time mapping and compression techniques to double the number of hours in the day, DayDoubler gives you access to 48 hours each and every day… At the higher numbers DayDoubler becomes less stable, and you run the risk of a temporal crash in which everything from the beginning of time to the present time could crash down around you, sucking you into a suspended time zone.” (Gleick, J., 2000.)
Making Peace with Time
Enter Positive Psychology. I was lucky enough to study with a teacher I consider to be an original positive psychologist, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, for 21 days in 2000, changing my relationship with time forever for the better. During that “Eyes of the Buddha” retreat I learned how to savor, how to meditate, how to walk, eat, breathe, work, and be with others mindfully (not that I always do so!). I also learned how to commit to myself to the importance of slowness, a state of mind I had up to that time perhaps longed for, but rarely experienced. Since that time, I’ve had busy weeks, busy days, my share of overwhelm – but never again have I embodied the kind of franticness I felt in the 1990s. I have truly been more nonviolent towards myself.
Many positive psychology discoveries have liberating implications for healing our relationship with time. Here are just a few of these many interrelated insights:
- Other people matter. In survey after survey, relationships are what people say are the most meaningful aspect of their lives. Relationships take time. John Gottman’s research shows that giving attention is a fundamental aspect of creating positive relationships. Attention takes time. Being willing to give that time, and that quality of attention – full attention, not divided attention – translates into fulfilling relationships.
- Savoring boosts well-being. One could argue that the “three good things” or “three blessings” exercise, one of the best-studied positive psychology interventions with robust and significant results, is a form of savoring: slowing down to notice things that have gone well in the recent past.
- Becoming a “satisficer” makes you happier. Minimizing the time taken up with choices which do not, in the end, matter that much to our overall happiness (which pair of jeans? which bottle of jam?) frees up time for what really matters… which turns out to be, in general, being embedded in reciprocal and satisfying social relationships (Schwartz, 200X).
- Loving kindness boosts positive affect. Positive affect in turn boosts all kinds of things, including mental resources (mindfulness, and a form of self-efficacy); psychological resources (optimism, resilience, ability to savor); social resources (giving and receiving support); physical health, and sleep quality. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s 2005-2006 study (in press), even 15 minutes a day of loving kindness (Metta) meditation for six weeks showed significant effects. Those who devoted more time to loving kindness meditation showed the most significant positive benefits three months after the six-week meditation class ended.
- In between. In Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis, he sums up, “Happiness comes from between,” meaning that happiness grows between people, in relationship, and in between the “self” and something larger than the self.
On the one hand, relationships take time, and time requires commitment. On the other hand, Barb Fredrickson’s study leads us to think about a very different kind of time than the “daydoubling” effect. Fredrickson learned that by the end of the study, “the amount of positive emotion per minute tripled,” due to lovingkindness meditation practice.
Thus while time stops for no one, our experience of time can be deeply and meaningfully enhanced. We can learn the skill of being fully present with one another. We can learn to deepen our feelings of love and tenderness for one another. As we do this, we can more easily allow destructive patterns to fall away. We may not turn out to need what we think we need. We do need clean air. We do need clean water. We do need love. But we do not need to be in a rush all the time. We can heal our relationship with time, and positive psychology can provide an excellent roadmap for that process.
References and Further Reading
Gleick, J. (2000). Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Random House.
Fredrickson, B. (2007). Unpublished study based on 2005-2006 research, from MAPP teleconference call, March 23, 2007.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Hanh, T. N. (1987). Being Peace. New York: Parallax Press.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.
Shapiro, S.L., Schwartz, G.E.R., & Santerre, C. (2005). Meditation and positive psychology. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.) Handbook of Positive Psychology, (pp. 632 – 645). New York: Oxford University Press.
Me in Time courtesy of Vincent Van der Pas