More Are Less Rushed Than Ever

More Are Less Rushed Than Ever

So maybe the real problem is not feeling stressed enough?

Illustration Credit: Room 0 by Ryan Peltier

A recent study by social psychologist John Robinson, a professor at the University of Maryland, reviewed national surveys from 1965 to 2010 (ironically, the latest such data available) and found startling results.

Despite all the TV ads aimed at the overwhelmed housewife, books on time management, and devices for the incurable multitasker, only 25 percent of Americans reported feeling rushed all the time, the lowest number since the 1970s.

Robinson also looked at happiness and found something else unexpected. The happiest people in the study were not just feeling rushed (a well-documented finding); in addition to that, they said they always had something to do with their free time. Not knowing what to do with your free time, Robinson says “[is] a psychological state which indicates that I don’t really have something useful to do with my time.” Although the study wasn’t designed to explain why these people were happier, it does suggest that just having large amount of free time is no longer the path to happiness.

When it comes to being rushed, Judy Wajcman, author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, says our expectations may be part of the problem. Professor Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, says we complain that cell phones, social media, and technology rob us of control of our time, but the fault lies in ourselves not our technology: “All of us [are] colluding in this crazy practice where we think we have to answer something quickly.”

Being rushed, however, has also become a badge of honor. Wajcman says, “If you are important now, you always have too much to do. Slowness is seen as a very negative thing.” Unlimited availability at work, especially in upper-level managers and those in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley, is the new norm. Things weren’t always this way. Wajcman points out that enjoying frequent leisure activities was once the privilege and the hallmark of the aristocracy. Today, such people would be labeled as self-indulgent.

Even in family life, dedication has become just as important as in business. Despite what your parents told you about the good old days, Wajcman says, “mothers and fathers are spending more quality time with their kids than ever before—but people just don’t want to believe it.”

Hoko Karnegis, a Soto Zen International Teacher, says the wisdom of Buddhism, which addresses the roots of suffering, can inform our modern dilemma of time pressure.

First, we must realize that our expectations of how we use time are just that— expectations. Karnegis says, “Sometimes we believe we’re separate from time and we can create this adversarial relationship with it. There isn’t enough of it and I can’t get this thing done . . . Our adversarial relationship with time is an illusion.” Once we see time as this thing that we can control, we begin to evaluate, judge, and criticize our use of it.

Karnegis isn’t saying that we should ignore how we use time. “It’s not that we shouldn’t look carefully at what we’re doing,” Karnegis says. “Sometimes we need to take some skillful action. But can we do that without labeling this as a good thing or a bad thing?” At its heart, Karnegis suggests that we do something much more involved and deeper than just learning time management. We must learn to recognize and let go of our judgments about how we use time; for example, that failing to do something efficiently, quickly, or on the first try means we should feel frustrated or disappointed.

Busy people, as Professor Robinson’s research discovered, can still be happy—maybe happier than most. As Laurie Stunz, a 59-year-old research scientist at the University of Iowa, recognizes, “There’s just so much I can pack into a day . . . and I just have to deal with that. ” When it comes down to it, finding a way to deal with work, parenting, or other time pressures isn’t about finding the right tool but about finding the right attitude.

Jason Drwal is a freelance writer, blogger, psychologist, and avid practitioner of mindfulness.

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