The Science of Self-Help

Teasing out the hype from the help

No Time Is Ever Wasted, Or Is It?

How giving time to others makes you feel like you have more time to give

While on vacation last week, my partner and I were talking about one of the more famous cases in which a celebrity got caught sleeping around and ended up divorced. The first thing I said was, "If I were his wife, I'd be so mad at him for all the time I'd wasted in that marriage." What happened next took me by surprise: he disagreed with me. Completely. It quickly became apparent that he was puzzled by the entire concept of "wasted time." In fact, as I pushed him further and further with hypothetical scenarios, it became clear to me that he truly feels that there is no such thing as wasted time. While I know for sure that I don't agree with that blanket statement -- I am pretty sure the couple of weeks I blew this summer playing on my Nintendo DS was 100% wasted -- I think there may be something to the idea.

Like the geek I am, the first thing I did when I got home was a lit search to see what science had to say about this topic. Lo and behold: there is at least way in which seemingly "non-productive" time is actually really beneficial. In a study about to be published in Psychological Science, researchers from Penn, Yale and Harvard asked people to spend time doing something selfless for a total stranger (in this case, helping an at-risk student writing his/her college admission essay). They compared these folks to people who were told they'd be editing an essay (same as the other group), but were then let off the hook at the last minute and allowed to leave early. Both groups of participants were asked how scarce their time is, and guess what? Although the people who had spent time helping had objectively less time in their day than the other group, they felt as if they had more. In other experiments, they added other comparison groups - spending time on yourself, for example - and found the same thing. Spending time on other people, more than any other way of using your time, makes you feel like you have more time to spare.

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I read this and realized immediately why my partner and I disagree on this whole "wasted time" idea. If I had to guess, I'd say that the majority of what he does in life, in his mind, is for someone else. What I look at and see as a pointless waste of time (say, cleaning the kitchen), he sees as something he can do for me. I think I do just the opposite - even stuff that is for someone else (say, commenting on student papers), I think of as being "something I have to do." He doesn't feel like he wastes much time because thinks much of what he does is for other people. I feel like I waste a lot of time because I think much of what I do as being obligatory.

It was kind of a cool realization. Someone should write a self-help book about that!

 

Mogliner, C., Chance, Z. & Norton, M.I. (in press). Giving time gives you time. Psychological Science.

Acacia Parks, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Hiram College. She develops and tests research-based ways of becoming happier.

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