Does The Psychology of Time Explain How To Make Better New Year’s Resolutions?
Dr Raj Persaud FRCPsych Consultant Psychiatrist
Making New Year’s resolutions might be one of the oldest examples of a psychological error we repeat year after year, taking a stab at personal change, but, it seems, inevitably failing. Surveys suggest most resolutions don’t survive to the end of February.
Making resolutions yet again in the hope that this time we will indeed transform ourselves into better people, appears an annual fruitless tradition.
If we are to break this frustrating cycle, we need to get our heads around the deep psychology at play. That this mental paradox and mystery runs very deep is attested by the fact resolutions have a long and enduring history.
Some argue that the tradition of New Year’s resolutions date back to 153 BC; the Roman calendar elected the first month named after Janus, the god of beginnings, whose effigy was to be found decorating doorways and entrances. Janus’ two faces, one in front and one in the back of his head, means he’s always looking back and forward.
We become anxious about the passage of time and the direction our lives are taking at this particular moment, because the changeover of a new year reminds us time is moving on, raising the question, are we sitting still?
This means to become more effective at personal change we need to consider our attitude to time.
We are driven to make resolutions at this time of year more than any other because time suddenly seems precious and slipping away.
In a new review of the current state of the field, entitled ‘Making seconds count: when valuing time promotes subjective well-being’, researchers Alice Lee-Yoon and Ashley Whillans propose there are two common ways that people value their time – valuing their time more than money or valuing their time like money.
The authors of this new review paper due to be published in the April 2019 edition of the academic journal, Current Opinion in Psychology contend this fundamental choice we have about thinking about our time, could be central in determining our longer-term happiness and well-being.
Previous research, and this current review, suggests that we can be divided into two basic psychological types, whether we value time more than money or whether we value time as if it were money.
People who value time more than money make spending decisions liberating more time. For example, choosing a direct vs. indirect flight, parking at a closer, more expensive parking bay as opposed to a further, cheaper parking lot.
These people seem as a direct result to spend more time investing in relationships, and socialising, for example, and this may partly explain why they tend to be happier on a wide variety of contrasting measures in different studies.
If you see time as the key valuable resource in your life you tend to end up spending time differently and living a contrasting life.
The authors of this latest investigation, from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, report that when asked whether people would rather have more time or more money, across studies, 63% of respondents value money over time, yet those who value time reported greater well-being
The majority of us would rather have more money and sacrifice time for this, and yet this seems to be the wrong decision in terms of what produces more longer-term happiness. It could be this error over time is crucial.
Alice Lee-Yoon and Ashley Whillans point out that simply thinking about time can produce similar powerful effects on major life decisions. Previous research has found that people who were induced to think about time cheat less, as compared to those who induced to think about money. Time-focus promotes self-reflection – such as reflecting on who one is and remaining true to core values, so maintaining one’s positive self-image. Money-focus promotes self-interest – such as pursuing personal goals and being less helpful to others.
People who focus on how much money their time is worth spend significantly less time hanging out with friends and family and significantly more time socializing with work colleagues. They also spend less time volunteering their time for free.
Alice Lee-Yoon and Ashley Whillans point out that previous research has found workers paid by an hourly rate for their time, and so perhaps are more focused on time as money, spend 36% less time volunteering than non-hourly paid workers.
Being paid by the hour makes us spontaneously dwell on the financial value of time. This produces a focus on maximizing productivity, increases impatience and even diminishes the personal meaning derived from work – increasing psychological stress.
If Alice Lee-Yoon and Ashley Whillans are right in their contentions, then the rise of the so-called ‘gig’ economy, where people are paid more on an hourly rate, has ominous widespread implications for the general contentment of our society.
Alice Lee-Yoon and Ashley Whillans point out that a sense of time scarcity and the broader feeling that time is running out leads to unhappiness. It is perhaps this discontent which leads us to rush to make resolutions. Made in haste and possibly even a kind of panic, these are unlikely to address the deeper issue, which is about our feelings over the passage of time.
Alice Lee-Yoon and Ashley Whillans quote a study where college students were asked to live as if it was the last month in their city; the results were that they savoured moments more and experienced greater well-being.
The key difference is perhaps to view time as resource to be used wisely as opposed to a dwindling resource draining between your fingers.
The best resolution of all at this time of year, is to change your attitude to time, and resolve to use your next year, every precious moment of it, better than the past.
Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Peter Bruggen are authors of the forthcoming book, ‘The Street-wise Guide to Getting the Best Mental Health Care’, published by Edward Everett Root
Making seconds count: when valuing time promotes subjective well-being. Alice Lee-Yoon Ashley Whillans Current Opinion in Psychology Volume 26, April 2019, Pages 54-57