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?