Time to take our time

Comments on the quality of life in the U.S. before and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Contribution of modern technology to the imbalance in the work and rest times of people; Shift in the priorities of people toward social isolation and future success and making money; Reminder to honor the past.

By Philip G. Zimbardo, published on March 1, 2002 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

Looking to the future is important--and veryAmerican--but living in
the present is vital

THE SEPTEMBER 11 TERRORIST ATTACKS forced awareness of a new enemy
at our nation's gates. It also made me aware of an old enemy: time, or,
more specifically, our collective development of a distorted perspective
of time. We are a nation out of temporal balance, one trapped in a
perpetual "time crunch." Americans report feeling increasingly busy, not
having enough time to do everything necessary in their hectic lives. We
work harder and longer than ever before without rest, despite all our
time-saving home devices and services. This makes us angry about having
to wait for anything and irritated at those who keep us on hold. So to
complete our extensive daily to-do lists, we cut down on "nonessential"
activities, such as attending church, participating in family rituals and
relaxing with friends.

Paradoxically, modern technology has contributed to this temporal
imbalance by championing nanosecond efficiency, a model that has seeped
across the once impermeable boundary between work and home. We work at
home as hard as we do at work and take work on the road because we must
be efficient to achieve our goals, to have successful careers, to make
it.

Time perspective is the mind's way of parsing the flow of human
experience into zones of past, present and future. In an optimally
balanced time perspective, these components blend and flexibly engage,
depending on a situation's demands and our needs and values. A positive
past orientation connects us with our roots, heritage, family, religion
and national rituals. It gives us a sense of stability, of our self over
time; it's where positive self-esteem is nourished. A future orientation
gives us wings to soar to new destinations, to seek new challenges and
opportunities by envisioning scenarios of possible future selves. A
present time perspective allows spontaneity, sensation seeking, openness
to novelty, being in the moment and fully experiencing and expressing
emotions.

In the era before 9/11, this fundamental temporal triad had reached
a tipping point for many Americans. Excessive future orientation left
little mental functioning to appreciate the virtues and values of the
past and present. Our capitalist corporate mentality gave dominance to a
future-oriented time perspective, ruled by abstract mental manipulations
of cost-benefit analyses, probabilities and contingent planning.

But something wonderful seems to be emerging from the ashes of the
World Trade Center, from the suffering and heroism we have all witnessed
together. Our priorities may be shifting away from the socially isolating
selfishness of an exclusive focus on future success and making money. We
are reaching out with a collective compassion for our fellow human
beings, breaking out of our self-centeredness to make time for family and
friends. We are volunteering our services, donating our blood and money
to make a difference in our national recovery. I hope this reordering of
priorities will not be a transient experience. Perhaps this break from
standard time will sensitize many to the deep significance of family and
social support, the comforting guidance of religion and the ultimate
value of embracing the joys and wonders of existence.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if America's response to 9/11 were to
reinvent itself as an even stronger nation, one with renewed civic
engagement and an awareness of the fragility and preciousness of every
human life? Developing and sustaining an optimally balanced time
perspective is crucial for making such changes endure in our psyches and
actions. Yes, work hard when there is a mission to be accomplished. But
play hard when the work is done. Permit self-pleasures and embrace social
connectedness. And remember to honor the past; it contributes wisdom and
stability to our root values.

PHOTO (COLOR): "WE ARE A NATION TRAPPED IN A PERPETUAL 'TIME
CRUNCH'"

Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at Stanford
University and the President of the American Psychological Association.
Ellen Langer, Ph.D., will return in a future "Just Think About
It."