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A Simple Strategy For Happiness: Ashley Whillans (Transcript)

Full text of Ashley Whillans’ talk titled “A Simple Strategy For Happiness” at TEDxCambridge conference. In this talk, she shares simple strategies to overcome time poverty and experience more fulfilling social relationships and satisfying careers.

Best quote from this talk:

The French spend more time eating and are less stressed and happier as a result. In contrast, Americans spend more time choosing their food than actually enjoying it.


Ashley Whillans – Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School

The people sitting in this room are some of the poorest in the world. And I can tell this without even looking at your bank account.

What I’m referring to isn’t a scarcity of money but rather a scarcity of time. Over 80% of working Americans today report feeling time poor, like they have too many things to do in a day and not enough time to do them.

These rising rates of time poverty have crushing effects on our happiness, our social relationships and our physical health. Time poverty silences our laughter, steals our joy, and depletes our personal well-being.

So where do these feelings of time poverty come from? And what can we do to overcome them?

The most obvious explanation for these rising rates of time poverty is that we simply spend more time working, or completing household chores than in previous decades.

Yet there is very little evidence for this idea. Men and women have more time for leisure than they did in the 1950s, thanks in part to a few modern miracles.

Instead time poverty today is caused by our constant connection to technology. Our iPhones, tablets, and laptops create time confetti fragmenting our leisure into small distracted minutes of time that are easily squandered and lost.

My data suggests that time poverty is also caused by our obsession with work and making money. We are taught and incorrectly believed that money, not time, will bring greater happiness. Even people with $10 million sitting in the bank make this mistake.

We’ve all heard the saying: money doesn’t buy happiness. And it’s true. The best data suggests that money protects against sadness but doesn’t buy joy. When our car breaks down, money provides a solution to this very specific stressor. Yet true happiness demands an investment of our attention and our time.

Okay. So if you’re sitting here thinking: professor, tell me something I don’t know. I get it. The solution that time poverty is simple make decisions that allow you to have more free time even if it comes at the expense of working and making more money.

I’m a happiness researcher. I have a PhD in behavioral science. I wrote a 150 page dissertation on the link between time stress and unhappiness. My life’s work thus far has taught me this one simple truth: prioritizing time is really hard.

Here are photos of me working while on vacation, on the beach, in the locker room of a spa. In fact, the one time I was caught actually enjoying myself on vacation, my friend took this photo and posted it to social media with the caption: proof you sometimes do things outside of the office, as if to capture an event even more rare than seeing an elephant in the wild.

To be clear these photos were not taken to memorialize perfect vacations. These photos are more like the Instagram equivalent of catching your doctor, taking a smoke break, before telling you that you have blocked arteries.

Just like we know that exercise is good for us, we know that time is our most valuable resource. And yet we fail to prioritize it undermining our happiness and health.

So what can we do to overcome these overwhelming feelings of time poverty?

I have the power to make you all less time poor right now. It’s true. I could leave the stage and give you four point seven five minutes back.

But I’m not going to do that. I don’t trust you. You would squander that free time perhaps by passively scrolling on your phone until the next talk starts. Or if you’re anything like me answering just one more work email.

It isn’t our fault that we fail to prioritize time or that we lose moments of free time; our brains get in the way. Human beings are pretty much allergic to leisure. Researchers call this phenomenon idleness aversion. I mean let’s be real. When’s the last time someone asked you what your plans were for today and you cheerily replied nothing?

We also think we’re going to have more time in the future than we do in the present. I like to call this bias The ‘Yes Damn’ Effect and it works in life a little bit something like this: Monday, hey Ash, can you help me move Saturday? No problem.

Tuesday. Hey Ash, want to go to dinner on Saturday? Sounds great.

Wednesday. Professor Whillans, I have a paper due Monday and I would really appreciate your help on Saturday. Of course. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes, Saturday, damn. Oh what was I thinking?

When the future becomes the present, we often wish we could take back the things we said yes to. It is clear our societies and our minds are conspiring against us when it comes to time.

We are taught that money is our most valuable resource. Our free time becomes time confetti thanks to our constant connection to our cell phones. And we say yes way too often, in part because we think we’re going to have more time in the future than we do in the present.

But luckily for us, just like people who are physically fit, the time-rich among us make small simple decisions in their everyday lives that allow them to have more and better time.

The time-rich among us prioritize time over money. No matter how much money they make, they’re willing to give up some of their money in order to have more and better time.

They are also likely to take all of their paid vacations. Now this seems obvious but many of us don’t do it. If your boss were to put a giant stack of monies on the table in front of you, you wouldn’t walk away from it.

But by failing to take all of your paid vacation, that’s essentially what you’re doing: you’re walking away from a gift of time.

They also spend more time savoring their daily experiences. My collaborator and I have data showing that the French spend more time eating and are less stressed and happier as a result. In contrast, Americans spend more time choosing their food than actually enjoying it.

To be clear, scrolling GrubHub for hours is not a path to greater time affluence or happiness. They also spend time engaged each day in activities that we know are good for happiness: socializing with friends and family, volunteering and exercising even if just for a few minutes.

As it turns out, giving away our time for free by volunteering is one of the best ways to feel like we have more of it. Maybe they have more time for these activities because they’re also willing to pay to outsource their most disliked tasks to others.

My data suggests that simply spending as little as $40 to outsource our most dreaded tasks to others can really pay off in terms of happiness and stress.

Lastly, the time-rich among us keep time affluent to do less. Each day we are rewarded with small moments of free time, like during our morning commute or while standing in line at our local supermarket. The time rich among us don’t squander this free time; they capitalize on it. They keep lists with activities that they can complete in these found moments, like texting their friend, calling their mom or reading an e-book.

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