Jim and Nora each attended summer camps that they enjoyed tremendously this past summer. When we picked up Nora from her camp, she was completely exhausted. Why? She and her new friends had only gotten 30 minutes of pretend sleep the night before. This was to fool their counselors before sneaking into a pre-determined room for a vigil during their precious last few hours together. Jim, it turned out, had stayed up all night his last night too, but without the pretense of tricking the counselors, who had by that time pretty much given up on enforcing a curfew.
Despite their exhaustion, we could tell that both kids had had a fantastic time. These, clearly, were weeks that they would remember fondly for the rest of their lives.
But perhaps the reason they enjoyed their time so much was precisely because it was limited. While a vacation in the tropics seems fabulous, getting stranded on a tropical island — even with plenty of food and water — can be terrifying. And while most of us live comfortable day-to-day lives with good friends and family, how often do we stop to appreciate our own good fortune? It’s certainly plausible that placing limits on enjoyable activities can end up making us happier.
Jaime Kurtz tested that notion by asking 67 seniors at the University of Virginia
at Arlington to participate in an introspective exercise about their satisfaction with their lives at college. First everyone took a quick measure of their happiness (the Subjective Happiness Scale). Then the students, who had all indicated that they were generally happy with their undergraduate experience, were divided into three groups, six weeks before the end of their final year of college. Each group was to write for ten minutes about their college life.
The experimenter suggested to Group 1 that very little time was left in their school career:
As you write, keep in mind that you only have a short amount of time left to spend at UVA. In fact, you have about 1,200 hours left before graduation.
Group 2 got the opposite message:
As you write, keep in mind that you a significant amount of time left to spend at UVA. In fact, you have about 1/10 of a year left before graduation.
Group 3 received no such instructions, and was asked to write about a typical day, while Groups 1 and 2 wrote about their friends, the campus, their activities, and their overall college experience.
Then, four times over the following two weeks, all participants were asked to expand on their original essays, and respond to an online survey asking whether they had participated in any of ten activities, such as spending time with friends, or going to a restaurant/bar/coffee shop. Each time Group 1 and Group 2 were reminded of how soon or far away graduation was, as before. Finally they were were given the same happiness scale they had taken on the first day of the study.
So, did the different groups have different happiness ratings? Here are the results:
The students who had been reminded of how soon graduation was (Group 1) said they were significantly happier than at the start of the study, and their reported happiness had risen significantly more than either of the other two groups. Group 1 also reported participating in more activities over the course of the study than the other groups.
While both Group 1 and Group 2 said they enjoyed college just as much, even after participating in the study, Group 1 was nonetheless happier and more socially active. The study doesn’t show whether the increased happiness led to more social activities or vice versa, but other studies have found that more socially active and connected people tend to be happier, so it’s quite possible that reflecting on how little time was left in college led these students to seek more social support, which in turn made them happier.
Kurtz says it’s unclear whether these results would hold for different time periods. For example, would obsessing over the fact that their life expectancy is a mere 80 years help a 20-year-old become happier or more socially active? It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem: people who learn of terminal illnesses often seek out more emotional satisfaction as they strive to find fulfillment.
Much clearer, of course, are the benefits of short-term sabbaticals like vacations and summer camps. Which reminds me — I need to start planning for next summer’s vacation!
Kurtz, J. (2008). Looking to the Future to Appreciate the Present: The Benefits of Perceived Temporal Scarcity Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1238-1241 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02231.x