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Home » You Can Be Happy Without Changing Your Life: Cassie Holmes (Transcript)

You Can Be Happy Without Changing Your Life: Cassie Holmes (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Cassie Holmes’ talk titled “You Can Be Happy Without Changing Your Life” at TEDxManhattanBeach conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Time and Happiness

Time — time is critical because how you spend the hours of your days sum up to the years of your life. I’m a professor of happiness, and I study time, which is kind of ironic because, for my own personal happiness, time proved to be the single biggest barrier. I remember one day earlier in my career when I was an assistant professor at Wharton. I had traveled up to New York to give a talk, and that day, like so many, was just crazy hectic.

My presentation was sandwiched between back-to-back meetings from which I’m rushing to this colleague dinner and then frantically rushing to the train station to catch the very last train that would get me home to my four-month-old and my husband asleep in Philly.

Now, I did make the train that night, but I remember so vividly sinking into my seat, totally exhausted, and resting my forehead against the glass, watching the night lights whiz by. I was like, “I don’t know if I can keep up.” Between the pressures of work, wanting to be a good parent, wanting to be a good partner, a good friend, the never-ending pile of chores, there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done, let alone do any of it well, let alone to enjoy any of it along the way.

The Quest for More Time

And I wanted more time, not just so I could get more done. I wanted more time so that I could slow down and actually experience the hours that I was spending so that my entire life wouldn’t end up passing me by in this blur. I know now that what I was experiencing is time poverty, which is defined as the acute feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Even if you haven’t heard this term before, I suspect you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Show of hands, how many of you agree with the statement, ‘I never seem to have enough time to get everything done?’ A lot of us. And we’re not alone; my research team conducted a national poll that showed that nearly half of Americans feel this way. And it’s not just us in the U.S., folks across the globe report suffering from a hectic pace of life with too little time.

And on that night on the train, when I felt very time poor and not happy, I concluded that there was one obvious solution. I needed to quit my job and move to a sunny island somewhere, right? Because with all the hours of my days to relax and spend doing what I wanted, then surely I’d be happier.

Rethinking Happiness and Time

And I was like, “Is that true? Are people who have a whole lot more time, in fact, happier?” And this is an empirical question and one that I could test and probably should test before telling my boss that I quit and my husband that we should pack for life at the beach. So, I recruited a couple of my favorite collaborators and together we examined what’s the relationship between the amount of discretionary time people have and their happiness.

And across our studies, including an analysis of the American Time Use Survey, which captures how tens of thousands of working as well as non-working Americans spent a regular day, we found a consistent pattern of results. And it looked like this. It was an upside-down U-shape, like an arc or a rainbow. Yes, people with too little time, those with less than approximately two hours of discretionary time in the day, were less happy. But this didn’t surprise me because I knew all about the high level of stress that comes from being time-poor.

The Surprising Truth About Time and Happiness

It was this other side that was surprising. Those with more than approximately five hours of discretionary time in the day were also less happy. And this is interesting because it shows there is such thing as having too much time. But how could that be, right? How could having loads of hours to relax and spend however you want to be associated with less happiness?

Well, it turns out we are driven to be at least a little productive. Research shows that people are averse to being idle. And so when we spend all the hours of the day, day in and day out, with nothing to show for it, it undermines our sense of purpose. And from that, we feel less satisfied. This is important to note because it cautions us on those days that feel so hectic.

Finding the Sweet Spot

The answer isn’t to quit everything and move to life, you know, sitting in a beach chair. These results point to something else that’s interesting too, namely, if we could just get to having two hours in the day to spend however we wanted, we’d reach that sweet spot for happiness.

Now, I will admit that at first, I’m like, “Two discretionary hours, that’s like an unreachable luxury.” But then when I did an honest accounting of my days, I realized that the target two hours wasn’t totally out of reach. Even during that hectic period of my life, I’d get to spend 15 minutes in the morning snuggling with my little one, 25 minutes talking to my best friend on my commute home from work, 30 minutes enjoying dinner and a glass of wine with my husband, and then 20 minutes singing my baby to sleep. This amounted to 90 minutes that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend in any other way.

And it wasn’t until I did this calculation that I realized just how joyful so many of my minutes already were. And so altogether, what this research shows us is that the answer for greater happiness isn’t really about having more time available.

The Solution Lies Within

It’s really about how we invest the time that we have. For happiness, it’s not about becoming time rich. It’s about making the time we have rich. But how? How do we make our time rich? Instead of quitting, I redirected my research agenda to answer this very question. How do we spend our time to experience greater joy during our days and so that at the end of our years, we can look back without regret?

And what I have learned is that time isn’t the problem. It can be the solution because how we dedicate our days to hours can have a tremendous impact on the satisfaction we feel in and about our lives, and it doesn’t require any drastic life-altering changes. With just a little bit of intention and attention, we can choose to be happier.

As a first step, we need to identify and protect time for those activities that are truly worthwhile, those activities that are fulfilling, that align with our values and purpose. One way to identify these activities is through time tracking.

The Importance of Ordinary Moments

Over the course of a week, write down for each half hour what you did and rate on a ten-point scale how you felt coming out of that activity. Something else you can do is to simply reflect, and you can actually do this right now. So think back over your last few weeks. What were those times that made you feel the greatest joy?

When I reflect back, my coffee dates with my daughter Lita stand out. Now mind you, this is an activity that was born out of a very functional routine. Every Thursday since she was little, on my way to drop her at her preschool and me to my office, I wanted coffee, clearly, so we’d stop at the local coffee shop. And soon enough, this mindless routine transformed into this treasured and highly anticipated ritual.

The Coffee Date Ritual

We have a coffee date playlist and everything. Each week, this is a blissful half hour that we get to spend together, chatting, munching on Nutella croissants, her drinking her hot chocolate, me my flat white. It’s time for just the two of us. And yes, this is a very regular activity that is special to me.

But the specialness of such regular activities is not an anomaly. In my research across lots of people, we find that those activities that produce the greatest happiness are often remarkably mundane. And you might have noticed that too when I just had you think about your most joyful activities. They were probably pretty ordinary.

The Danger of Neglecting Ordinary Joys

And this is important to note because since these activities are so ordinary, when we’re in a rush, when we feel time poor, we’re very quick to neglect these activities. Or even if we make the time, we’re rushing through them. Or we’re distracted on our phones or in our heads, cycling through our to-do list, thinking about and planning for what’s next. But to be fair, it’s easy to miss these moments because we’ve gotten used to them.

We’ve gotten so used to these simple joys that we barely even notice them anymore. And this is due to hedonic adaptation, which is our psychological propensity to get used to things over time. And so when you do the same thing again and again, when you’re with the same person again and again, they stop having as intense of an emotional impact on you. Now it’s good that we are adaptive in the face of negative circumstances.

The Power of Hedonic Adaptation

Hedonic adaptation helps us manage through those tough times. It makes us resilient. And it’s bad that we also get used to life’s good stuff. For example, think back to the very first time someone you really cared about said, “I love you.” It’s like fireworks in your mind and your heart.

And then a few years on, “I love you” gets reduced to “love you” as you’re hanging up the phone or heading out the door. And if something as profound and wonderful as the declaration of love gets reduced to a couple words that you barely even hear, that shows the power of hedonic adaptation. And it shows that we need to be careful and aware of it so that we can offset it and continue to feel the happiness from life’s joys.

Counting Times Left

One way to offset hedonic adaptation is to count your times left. Just because it’s an everyday activity now, it doesn’t mean it’s going to continue to happen every day, and certainly not like it does now. So for instance, with my coffee dates with little Lita, I counted. As a first step, I calculated how many times have we done this in the past.

So including our daily coffee dates during my maternity leave with her and then our weekly ones since. I calculated that Lita and I have gone on approximately 400 coffee dates together. Now, the next step is to calculate how many times left do you have to do this activity in the future, accounting for factors that will likely change.

So Lita is now eight. When she turns 12, I suspect she’ll prefer to go to the coffee shop with her friends instead of me. So it’ll be less frequent. And then she’s going to go off to college. And then she’s going to move to New York if she’s anything like I was. So with that, I calculated that Lita and I have 230 coffee dates in the future.

Now, the last step, calculating. Of the total times, what percentage do you have left? From this, I realized Lita and I have approximately 36% of our coffee dates together left. That’s much less than half. And she’s only eight years old. Now at first, this might seem sad. And you might be wondering to yourself, “I thought this lady was a happiness professor. Why is she making me cry?” But I can assure you that the effects of this exercise are really positive and impactful because recognizing the preciousness of these times motivates us to make the time.

Making Time for What Matters

No matter how busy I am, I absolutely carve out and protect time for my weekly coffee dates with Lita. And yes, they used to be on Thursday mornings on the way to preschool. But now she’s in elementary school, which starts way too early. So our Thursday morning coffee dates happen on the weekend. But that’s fine because we still spend the time.

As important as making the time is how engaged we are during these times. Having counted, I made darn sure to put my phone away to quiet that to-do list that otherwise was constantly running in my head because I know that I cannot be distracted from this moment thinking about and planning for what’s next because this is the time that matters. And also, this is only 30 minutes each week. But these minutes color how I feel the rest of the week and really how I feel about my life overall.

The Impact of Ordinary Joys

Not only do I feel happy during these dates, but I feel happy beforehand as I look forward to them. I feel happy afterwards as I think back and remember them. When I’m assessing my satisfaction with my life overall, these minutes and the resulting connection and relationship that I have with my daughter have a huge effect.

I can honestly say now that despite still having that high-pressure job and husband and now two kids instead of one and that never-ending pile of chores, that I am happy. And this touches back to what I said before. When it comes to happiness, it’s not about the quantity of time we have available. It’s about the quality, how we invest the time that we have and how invested we are while spending that time. With just a little intention and attention, we can find extraordinary happiness in ordinary moments. Thank you.

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