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A Counterintuitive Route to Happiness

Reminders that time is slipping away can be a catalyst to more fully embracing the present.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Aatik Tasneem/Unsplash)

Want to be happier? Don’t lose sight of the fact that everything you enjoy will come to an end.

That’s a counterintuitive prescription, to be sure. But new psychological research suggests it actually works.

In a study featuring college students, “imagining time as scarce prompted people to seize the moment, and extract greater well-being from their lives,” writes a research team led by psychologist Kristin Layous of California State University–East Bay.

Participants who adopted a time-is-short mindset experienced “greater connectedness, competence, and autonomy,” the researchers report in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

The experiment featured 111 undergraduates at a large mid-Atlantic university. Half of them were simply told to “keep track of your daily activities.”

The rest were instructed to ponder what they like about the college town they now live in, and “plan the next 30 days like they will be your last chance for a long while to enjoy your surroundings.” They were encouraged to “do all of the things you are going to miss while you’re away,” and “take time to enjoy what you love most” about the area.

All participants checked in once a week for the next four weeks, writing down what they did during the past seven days. After doing so, they were reminded of their task and instructed to keep at it.

At the end of the four weeks, and again during a follow-up two weeks later, they took the Balanced Measure of Psychological Needs survey to determine how well three sets of basic needs (connection with others, a feeling of personal competence, and a sense of autonomy) were being met. They rated the truth of such statements as “I felt a sense of contact with people who care for me, and whom I care for”; “I was successfully completing difficult tasks and projects”; and “ I was really doing what interests me.”

The results: Well-being increased for both groups over the six-week period, but the increase was more than twice as big for those who were instructed to imagine that this phase of their lives was coming to an end.

Layous and her colleagues conclude that their “time-scarcity instructions led participants to become more motivated to plan, do, and enjoy activities.” This increased their sense that the aforementioned psychological needs were being met, and led to higher levels of well-being.

It’s worth noting that the bulk of the participants were college freshmen, who were years away from the experience they were asked to imagine (let alone other, more permanent, endings). Nevertheless, putting themselves in a scarcity frame of mind led to positive changes in both attitude and behavior.

So if you’d like to get into a happiness-producing mindset, but saccharine sayings such as “life is beautiful” make your teeth ache, try one that can’t be argued with: “Nothing lasts forever.” Few things focus the mind like the sound of a ticking clock.