Focusing on how little time you have left can make you happier

ResearchBlogging.orgJim 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

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Does that make older people happier and enjoying their lives more as they feel the end is coming more and more near?

i dunno about this study. college is, from my experience, a really great experience and i always loved it. but i can name a few experiences i've had that completely suck which i hated at the time, and knowing they were (finally!!) going to end do nothing for my perception of them except make me wish the end would hurry up already! and those experiences sure left a nasty taste in my mouth afterwards that lasts to this very day.

Bora: Actually older people do tend to be happier, especially if they're still able to make social connections.

Grrl: Yeah, I'm not sure how all this would work if the study population was less happy overall with their lives. We can't generalize the results to people who are unhappy with their college experiences.

Those guys with their "The End Is Nigh" signs are just trying to cheer us up?
Not really. Those kids at summer camp were maybe getting an expectation that the rest of their lives would hold such adventures. Mostly this is true but only much later do you look back at it as a highlight.
My own experience of college was miserable. Even the parts where I was academically succesful. I didn't have much thought of the future, good or bad. Waybe that was part of the probled.

Are they really focusing on how much time they don't have, or just hyper focused on on the task at hand? Working under a deadline motivates a lot of people to get it done.

I can see the logic in this. Since losing two very close friends in the space of a year (one 21 years old, one 31 years old) I've really started to do my best to get everything done that I could possibly want to do. I still have my job, still putting into my pension, still saving for a rainy day etc but I'm learning the clarinet, reading up to do a degree in Physics, spending more time with my friends than on my own and the difference is apparently really obvious to the people around me:

I'm (usually) in a great mood, I've always got something to look forward to, and I'm really proud of the small but significant progress I'm making on the clarinet! It'd be the worst thing to get to 70 and regret not doing something because I couldn't be bothered when I had the chance!

It's a bit morbid, but it seems to be working :-)

I'm surprised there wasn't some sort of an effect from the absolute size of the numbers involved -- that is, students told they had 1200 (of something) left feeling like they had a longer time than students told they had 1/10 (of something) left.