In the hit podcast "S-town," the troubled, quixotic, brilliant and possibly nefarious protagonist John B. McLemore does a calculation. He figures out how much time an average man who lives to the age of 60 has to do the things he loves. He takes out one-third of the years for sleep, and other chunks for work and taking care of other life chores. He ends up with a number of days a person has to live a meaningful life. (Of course, each person's calculation for that number would be different, but you get the general idea.)
It might seem morbid or strange to calculate your life like that, but a recent study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that taking stock of and understanding how little time we really have can help us savor the good stuff — and therefore make us happier.
The authors of the study know this is easier said than done. As they write, "... savoring everyday life is often challenging. Even the most beautiful or noteworthy events are susceptible to the process of hedonic adaptation, whereby they lose their emotional impact over time and through repeated exposure."
So, how do you get around that? You can't just tell people to savor their lives more; it's a daily challenge to change ingrained ways of thinking — and general life appreciation is not most people's strong suit. It's tough to test something as ephemeral as the relationship between savoring life and happiness, but the job of scientists isn't to make assumptions about connections between two things, even if they seem obvious. They need evidence.
How to test for happiness
The test participants were freshman college students, and they were asked to imagine what it would be like if they knew they'd be leaving that campus soon. What would they miss? (Photo: Dieon Roger/Shutterstock)
To get that proof, researchers came up with a way to test their hypothesis. They worked with a group of 111 college students over a four-week period, and gave them the same set of questions — the Balanced Measure of Psychological Needs survey — when they began the study, at the end of four weeks, and again at a two-week follow-up. The survey measured three basic areas — life satisfaction, positive emotions and negative emotions — and included specifics on how connected they felt with others, how competent they thought they were and if they felt they had a sense of independence in their lives.
Some of the students were in the control group, and they were instructed to simply keep track of their time over the study period. They were given the survey at the intervals described above. The other participants were instructed to think about their college town and to plan out the next month as if they were going to be leaving that place for a long time. It was suggested that the students enjoy their surroundings and “do all of the things you are going to miss while you’re away." They were also given the survey.
While both groups experienced an increase in well-being over the six-week period, the group told to enjoy the place they were in as if it were their last chance to do so experienced a much steeper increase in happiness than the other group. (Though it's worth nothing that simply keeping a detailed track of your time can increase happiness too, as the control group showed.)
As the scientists wrote: "... imagining time as scarce prompted people to seize the moment and extract greater well-being from their lives."
So what did the college students do differently? Nothing all that dramatic, even though they experienced significant happiness increases. One wrote: "I walked around campus to classes instead of taking the bus. I sat on the quad and enjoyed the scenery. I also visited skyline drive off campus with my boyfriend to stargaze."
These are the kinds of activities most of us can do wherever we live, and if we engage in them — and then maybe add in a little writing about what we appreciated most about our day (another previously studied way to increase happiness), most of us can improve how we feel about our lives in just a few weeks — for free.
To get in the right frame of mind, take a few minutes to listen to this TEDxMarin talk from Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and the author of “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.” His talk is about how to make the most of a good experience and make it last longer than just a moment. Seems like a good use of time.