Health, Happiness, And Time Well Spent

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What do people value most? What do you personally value most?

Let’s imagine that we could have asked this of people throughout history – and pre-history. Thousands of years ago, safety, health, and sustenance would probably have been at the top of the list. Once these ‘basics’ had been achieved, as has been the case in most countries in the past few centuries, I suspect the well-being of family and the possession of certain items would be next on the list.

In an effort to determine what is most valued today, my colleagues and I polled 81 Americans living in the Boston area. The responses were so surprising that we decided to conduct a larger national survey. And when that larger survey confirmed the surprising initial findings, we replicated the survey in six other countries — Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, and Turkey.

What did we find? In a nutshell, people around the world place a special premium on ‘time well spent.’

Over and over, in our interviews and surveys, we found that individuals were especially pleased when they had an experience that was enjoyable and fulfilling, and conversely frustrated when they felt that they had not spent their time well.

For example, they could have a delicious meal at a high quality restaurant. But they much preferred a meal of mediocre quality, if they could be surrounded by friends whose company they enjoyed.

Over and over, we found that individuals were especially pleased when they had an experience that was enjoyable and fulfilling, and conversely frustrated when they felt that they had not spent their time well.

On the other hand, many who spent hours playing online games, registered annoyance that they had wasted so much time.

We wondered about the reasons for this intense focus on the use of time — which was consistent among respondents in both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries.


We begin with the observation that we live in an era where everyone is aware of time. That ubiquity is important, perhaps necessary. The issue of how, and how well, one spends one’s time may be a more recent phenomenon, and we are more aware than ever of all the alternatives: not three television networks, but hundreds; not a few sources of news and sports, but thousands; not mail sent and responded to in a week’s time, but email and text messages crying for acknowledgement in minutes, if not seconds.

This state of affairs is especially true in the U.S., where we are constantly evaluated for how efficiently we use time at work, and where the ding of messages follows us everywhere, making time truly away from work less easy to achieve. And even when one turns attention to the amount of leisure time available — and it is often not much — there is acute awareness of the alternatives and subsequent frustration when the optimal choice has not been selected.

Indeed, among the several paradoxes our research has revealed is that the awareness of the importance of how one spends time is not the same as the capacity to actually use time wisely. As individuals, we are not necessarily good at anticipating which experiences will give us pleasure and which will not. We may dream about a permanent lift should we win the lottery, or fear an interminable funk should we become seriously ill. And yet most of us would quickly return to the essentially the same affective ‘set point’ that we had prior to such seemingly life-changing events. Looking forward to the vacation ends up more pleasurable than the vacation itself, though many of us have the knack of glorifying the holiday in retrospect. Such phenomena raise the question of the extent to which we value time well spent, as opposed to the expectation and the recollection thereof.

Finally, what seems like a waste of time may not be; researchers have recently documented the importance of daydreaming, reflecting, letting your mind wander as catalysts for creativity or for the solution of vexing problems.

With all this in mind, we offer these tips:

  • Put the quality of time use front and center in your life.
  • Pursue and value quality, not just quantity. In other words, don’t just think about how long an event (like a meeting or meal) will take; think instead about whether you will enjoy and profit in some way from the minutes or hours.
  • Don’t try to fill every minute — it is healthy to sit back, reflect, and daydream.
  • Technology is a double-edged sword — it’s seductive, superficially fun, but it’s time consuming and rarely produces a lasting sense of satisfaction.
  • Reflect on how you have used time — and if not well, then go back to the drawing (or the day dreaming) board.

These rules apply to you the reader – but to me the writer as well.  The many minutes I spent in writing this essay were well spent for me — I hope that you did not consider them a waste of your time.

Editor’s note: The research described in this essay was supported by the Faber-Castell company and conducted in collaboration with Lynn Barendsen and Wendy Fischman. 

This program aired on February 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.