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How "Time" affects Happiness

Simplifying your life and Time Perspectives

Introduction & Background

"Simplify Your Life" Tal Ben-Shahar

The term “Simplify your life” is taken from Tal Ben-Shahar’s 2007 self-help book “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment”. His advice in this book under the heading of “Simplify your life” includes reducing the amount of tasks and daily duties one has in order to achieve happiness by having time to enjoy life. He indicates that devoting energy to happiness rather than quantifiable gains such as material possessions would reduce a phenomenon known as “time poverty”, a lack of time to pursue leisure activities that is synonymous with modern day living. While there is no direct empirical evidence that Ben-Shahar bases his advice on, the relationship between time affluence, material affluence and happiness has been studied by economists, psychologists and sociologists throughout the decades.

Empirical Background

Frederick Herzberg, an American Psychologist influential in the field of Business Management, created a “Two Factor” theory of job satisfaction (1959) which relates in part to the “Simplify your life” concept. Within this theory, he created a distinction between hygiene and motivational factors of job satisfaction. He proposed that motivational factors increase satisfaction and that these include responsibility and the fostering of personal growth within an organisation which are related to complex psychological needs. In contrast, he proposed that the presence of hygiene factors such as job security, working conditions and pay serve to prevent employee dissatisfaction rather than increasing satisfaction and that these are related to basic human needs. It can therefore by inferred that Herzberg assumed material affluence to be related to meeting basic human needs, rather than meeting more complex psychological needs and that it prevents unhappiness rather than increasing happiness.

In line with Herzberg, within economic and sociological research, there is evidence that material affluence does not directly relate to happiness in terms of the sharp economic growth which has occurred over the past century and the subsequent lack of a marked increase in happiness. Diener and Biswas-Diener (2002) indicate that subjective-well being only increases with monetary gains so long as there is an increase in a person’s basic needs being met. Once these needs are met, material desires rise but the meeting of these is not accompanied by a similar increase in well-being. Diener and Seligman (2004) therefore propose in light of this evidence that government policies should focus more on increasing over-all subjective well-being rather than producing favourable economic outcomes.This stance is supported by claims made by De Graaf (2003) who suggests that time poverty, that is a lack of time affluence, can be detrimental to subjective well-being by lowering physical health, community engagement, and family involvement.

Cultural/Historical Background

Historically, there are many movements both social and religious which mimic the “simplify your life” concept.An Elder Buddhist
In religion, Roman Catholic and Lutheran monks swear oaths of chastity, obedience and poverty, the latter of which requires monks to give up their worldly assets and possessions and to live humble lives, sharing what material gains they make with the poor and needy. In Zen Buddhism, the faith’s ethical precepts include “I will respect the property of others, I will not steal”. This precept also includes the promise to live simply and frugally which is based on the idea that one of the three evil roots that causes bad karma is “Greed” - lusting after money or material goods. In Buddhism, it is believed that greed and desire can never be satisfied, and that it is best to let go of greed to obtain happiness.

“The back to the Land” movement in America during the 1960s and 1970s demonstrates a social application of the “simplify your life” concept. During this time, a significant amount of Americans chose to adopt self-sufficient independent lifestyles, moving from urban to rural environments and beginning small farms. The movement’s purpose is best summed up by Farmer and author Gene Logsdon who said “ in terms of how much food, clothing, shelter, and contentment I could produce for myself rather than how much I could buy”.

Recently, there has been a further resurgence in living simply not dissimilar to “The back to the land movement”. One website exemplifying this resurgence is “The Simple Living Network” - compromised of resources, community services and information dedicated to helping individuals adopt a simple living approach. One of the values central to this relatively recent simple living movement is “material simplicity”, which involves careful consideration and monitoring of spending and possessions. It is defined by the American Friends Service Committee as a “non-consumerist life-style based upon being and becoming, not having”.

Time Perspectives

The concept of ‘Time Perspective’ was proposed by psychologist Philip George Zimbardo. It refers to the way in which individuals divide their everyday experience into different ‘time zones’ or ‘time categories’. This conception of focussing on different time frames when making decisions happens automatically and varies from person to person. PrimPhilip G. Zimbardoarily, Zimbardo argued that a balance in all time perspectives predicts well being, success and happiness whereas a bias (higher/lower orientation) towards only one or two time perspectives is unhealthy, detrimental on well being and so leads to a less fulfilling life. He emphasises the importance of time perspective (TP) and how it affects almost all aspects of human behaviour and in particular, how it affects the quality of life.

To measure different kinds of time perspectives Zimbardo developed the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI) which has proved reliable and valid (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2003). From this construct three main time perspectives can be measured:

Past Orientated : Decisions are based on past memories – focus on what was.

There are two types: past – negative and past – positive.

A past – negative TP is associated with concentrating on gloomy personal experiences while having a past – positive TP is to focus on happy personal experiences in the individuals’ past which therefore reinforces the need to maintain those strong relationships with friends and families.

Present Orientated : Decisions are made only about the immediate situation – focus on what is now.

There are also two types: present - hedonistic and present - fatalistic.

Someone with a present - hedonistic TP focus on the present joys of life and they live for seeking enjoyment of present momentary activities with a minimum concern over consequences of their actions. They are essentially pleasure and sensation orientated. Someone with a present - fatalistic TP however, do not strive to change things in their life in the sense that they believe that their life is already controlled by outside forces.

Future Orientated : Decisions are based on anticipating consequences (cost/benefit analysis). They are very goal orientated and focus on what will be.

Someone with a future – orientated TP concentrates mainly on achieving future goals and rewards. They believe that what they do now in the present will increase the probability of a future outcome and so they often sacrifice present enjoyment in working towards the future.

Research suggests that the TP construct is found to be associated with many behaviours, attitudes, values and even status variables, for instance, educational achievement, health and delinquency. It is also argued that time perspective is predictive of a wide range of behaviours. An example of this can be seen in the simple marshmallow experiment conducted by Walter Mishel. Children of 4/5years old were given a marshmallow and told that they could eat it if they want OR they could wait 15 minutes and get two when the experimenter returned. As a result, they found that 2/3rds of the children ate their marshmallow (the present - orientated ones) when they were left alone with it while 1/3 of the children delayed gratification and waited so they could have two (the future - orientated ones). The interesting finding was that 14years later when they conducted a follow - up study, they found that the future - orientated children performed better academically, were more co - operative and confident whi

le the present - orientated children were less successful academically, more indecisive and prone to jealousy and envy.

As well as the simple marshmallow study there are in fact many more studies which suggests that time perspective is a useful predictor of behaviour. It has been suggested that TP can be a useful predictor of risky behaviour, such as risky driving (Zimbardo et al, 1997) and substance abuse (Keough et al, 1999) such as cannabis use (Apostolidis et al, 2006).

In a study involving 2863 participants, Zimbardo et al (1997) found that present time – perspective was significantly correlated with reported risky driving behaviours. This effect appeared greater than, and independent of, the negative correlations between future TP and risky driving. Moreover, they found that males were more present – orientated and report taking more risks than females, while females were more future - orientated. Another study which illustrates that present and future time perspective can affect people’s behaviours differently was carried out by Keough et al (1999). They firstly confirmed that present and future time – perspective are two independent constructs and secondly they found that present TP proved to be a significant predictor of reported substance abuse use. This was true even when they took into consideration and controlled for the personality traits that have been linked to an increase in substance abuse. A more recent study which supports these claims was carried out by Apostolidis and colleagues (2006). The authors sampled 198 French students who were presented with a valid French version of the ZTPI scale and investigated the relationship between TP, cannabis use and risk perceptions related to this type of substance abuse. Essentially, they found that TP was a significant predictor of cannabis consumption frequency and there also appeared to be significant links between consumption and risk perception.

Cultural Background

To an extent, the present time perspective can be related to the religion of Buddhism. The history of Buddhism dates back to the sixth century BC and thus makes it one of the oldest religions practiced today. There are many teachings in Buddhism for instance, karma, the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. According to the ‘Four Noble Truths’ Buddhists are taught firstly that life is suffering, that we live in an imperfect world and we would never be able to keep what we strive for because the world is subjective to impermanence. Secondly they are taught that suffering is due to the desire to need and control of things. Thirdly, it is argued that there is a way to end suffering through what is called ‘Nirodha’ where the mind experiences complete liberation and freedom from all worries and troubles. To end the cravings and ignorance that is the cause of suffering and thus unhappiness. Lastly, the way to end suffering and be content is to follow the rules of the eightfold path. It is believed that completing this journey will free the individual from attachments which are causes to suffering. To an extent, the Buddha can be seen as having a present orientated time perspective because ultimately people who follow Buddhism are taught to not concentrate and crave and strive for things in the future that that will not give you lasting happiness.

Practical Applications

Simplify Your Life - Practical Applications

The ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement is based on the notion that the acquisition of money, status and material goods (representing Herzberg’s (1961) hygiene factors of employment) in the search for psychological well being and happiness is a time consuming quest perpetually doomed to failure (Elgin, 1981). In actual fact, the pursuit and achievement of materialistic affluence can actually have a negative effect on individual and familial psychological well being. Experimental evidence shows that people who value financial success and increased status level over psychological growth, self-competence and family/community experience report low self-actualization, vitality and happiness as well as increased anxiety and unhappiness compared to those who value more intrinsically rewarding goals (Kasser & Ryan, 1996, Kasser & Ahuvia, 2002). Materialistic people are often less happy and less satisfied with their lives, family, income and friends than non-materialistic people (Belk, 1985, Richins & Dawson, 1992). Children in affluent families have been found to be at an elevated risk of developing anxiety, depression and substance use (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005). Two factors that have been implicated in this risk are pressure to achieve and isolation from parents (Luthar, 2003).

It is suggested that a more effective means of achieving long term satisfaction is to reduce ones materialistic expectations and devote more time and energy to the pursuit of non-materialistic, intrinsically rewarding sources of meaning, such as family, psychological growth and leisure activities (Sachau, 2007). An increased level of simplicity can be achieved through ‘downshifting’ (Etzioni, 1998) which involves giving up luxurious consumer goods such as expensive clothes, household goods and cars in favour of more modest items. Chasing expensive materialistic goods can lead to a never ending pursuit in which nothing ever quite satisfies the urge to buy more. Learning how much is ‘enough’ and sticking to it can help enable one to live within their means and reduce unnecessary clutter. Lowering materialistic expectations reduces the amount of time, money and energy required to maintain a high status, high consumption lifestyle (Schor, 1998). These resources can then be redirected towards activities more likely to produce long term satisfaction. Time pressure is significantly associated with distress in both me and women (Roxburgh, 2004) Evaluating what time is spent on and reconsidering how it would be best spent, eliminating the activities that are not enjoyed and offer little long term benefit, can allow one to free up more time for the things that are truly in line with their priorities. The experience of time affluence is positively related to subjective well being (Kasser & Sheldon, 2009). Cutting out time consuming negative relationships is suggested to be an important step in simplifying successfully (Ben-Sahar, 2007).

‘Downshifting’ represents a rather moderate form of voluntary simplicity. A more extreme form of voluntary simplicity is displayed by ‘strong simplifiers’ (Etzioni, 1998). This group includes individuals that have given up high socio economic status jobs to live on often much decreased income from more personally meaningful jobs and individuals who voluntarily choose to retire much earlier than they are required to do so in order to spend more time with family and pursuing leisure activities. An increase in the number of people in Western societies choosing such a path has led to the emergence of a loosely connected simple living movement, often motivated philosophically by the writings of authors such as Duane Elgin (1981) and Thoreau (1854). A survey by Ray (1997) estimated that 1 in 4 (44 million) Americans ranked voluntary simplicity high among their values.

Time Perspective – Practical Applications

Zimbardo's current research on the psychology of Time Perspective focuses on the ways in which individuals develop temporal orientations that categorise the flow of personal experience into the mental categories, or time zones, of Past, Present, and Future. Zimbardo et al (2008) are interested especially in temporal biases in which these learned cognitive categories are not "balanced" according to situations, contexts and demands, but one or another are utilized excessively or underutilized. Individuals with such biases can be helped to develop the mental flexibility to shift time perspectives as a situation demands.

It is suggested that the optimal general time perspective is past positive and future oriented with a moderate level of present hedonism. Orientation towards past negative and present fatalism is the least adaptive time perspective. Fostering a more adaptive time perspective from a young age can help to reduce possible negative outcomes such as poor academic performance and low self esteem associated with low future orientation observed in the follow up of the children involved in the marshmallow experiment.

The application of methods aimed at reducing temporal biases and increasing adaptive time perspective may also prove useful for combating high school drop out rates, addictions, rehabilitation drop out rates, post-traumatic stress disorder, global warming, suicide terrorism and family conflict (Zimbardo et al, 2008). 

Critique of "Simplify your Life" and Time Perspectives

Not much criticism towards the approach has been expressed. The core of the approach is that Less Is More, which is a popular view. After stripping down life to the necessities , getting rid of the clutter and stopped spending money on unnecessary things (unless this is a major interest), this will make people need less money, which give them more time to do what they want to do. This is not only an approach to increase well-being; it is aimed to reduce anxiety. However, people do not want life to be too easy. We do not desire our homes to be overly tidy or possessing all the clothes we will ever need. There has to be a strife in life, even on the smaller levels. Only doing enough does usually not feel enough.

The approach of doing as little, as effectively as possible feel misguided, and the attention should rather be directed at how this could be done in a way to make even the smallest effort count, be a victory. When Dominguez and Robin in their book “Your Money or Your Life” imply that time spent making money is a waste of “life energy”, it reduces all the valuable rewards that employment will give people. Other approaches in positive psychology focus on how to make the most of life, of big and small events.

“Simplify your life” and Time Affluence are important tactics that will help most people to see what they value in life, and what they can be without. However, the exaggeration of the approach could make people lessen the joy of everyday life events.

Future Directions

The concepts of simple living and time perspectives are based on a lot of theory without much empirical evidence. Alot of the simple living techniques are based around self help ideas, which could be seen as very subjective and individualistic, therefore for this to be seen as a valid psychological concept more experimental studies could be done in the future.

A study by Kasser and Sheldon noted that in studies which do carry out experiments, results tend to be based on retrospective self report measures. The problem with this being, looking back on something after an event can lead to self-serving biases, perhaps thinking something made your happier than it did, or a situation was worse than it was. They authors suggest such studies should employ more objective indicators such as peer responses of well being.

For further future studies it should always be taken into account the area and culture being studied. It is true that perhaps the Western world is a very modernised, technological society which would benefit from being reminded of the important, simple things in life, but this perspecive may not work in other, poverty stricken areas of the world where it has never really been forgotten.

Key points

Simplify your Life

  • Tal Ben-Shahar (2007) advises that happiness is best achieved by having time to enjoy life, and that this can be done by prioritising our lives and reducing the amount of tasks and duties we perform daily.
  • Not only should we make more time to enjoy life, but we should learn to balance time in such a way that it contributes to our well being and satisfaction with life (Boniwell, 2005).
  • Individuals should strive less for material affluence and more for time affluence in order to become happier and more satisfied with life (Tal Ben-Shahar 2007)
Time Perspective
  • Time perspective is a powerful influence on many aspects of human behaviour. It can be reliably measured by the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2003), and relates to whether we focus on our past, present or future when we make decisions and take actions (Boniwell, 2005)
  • The time perspective construct is associated with many behaviours, relating to whether a person tends to relive their past, live for the moment, or look to the future.
  • It is important for an individual's wellbeing to have a balanced time perspective. 'Time poverty' can lead to cognitive overload and feelings of pressure that may interrupt one's ability to be present in the moment (Kasser & Sheldon, 2009). The best way to reduce time poverty is to learn how to balance time in such a way that it contributes to one's wellbeing and satisfaction with life (Boniwell, 2005).

Recommended Reading for Simplify your Life/Time Perspective

Ben-Shahar, T (2007), "Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment" Mcgraw Hill

Elgin, D (1981) "Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich." Harper Collins

The Simple Living Network (

"Why Time Affluence Matters, and 10 Ways to Boost Yours" (

Boniwell, I., and Zimbardo, P (2003). "Time to find the right balance" The psychologist, Vol. 16, 129 - 131

Drake et al (2008) Time Perspective and Correlates of Wellbeing: Time Society , 17: 47-61

Kasser, T & Sheldon K (2009) Time Affluence as a Path toward Personal Happiness and Ethical Business Practice: Emipirical Evidence from Four Studies: Journal of Business Ethics , 84: 243-255

Zimbardo, P (2008) "The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life." Simon & Schuster, New York 


Simplify Your Life & Time Perspective

Apostolidis, T., Fieulaine, N., Simonin, L., and Rolland, G. (2006). "Cannabis use, time perspective and risk perception: evidence of a moderating effect" Psychology and Health, Vol. 21 no. p5, 571 - 592

Belk, R.W (1985) Materialism: Trait Aspects of Living in the Material World. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 265-280 

Ben-Shahar, T (2007), "Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfilment" Mcgraw Hill

Boniwell, I (2005), "Beyond time management: how the latest research on time perspective and perceived time use can assist clients with time-related concerns" International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Vol 3, No 2, Autumn 2005 p61

Boniwell, I Zimbardo, P (2003) "Time to find the right balance" The Psychologist vol.16 no.3 p.4-5

Diener, E and Biswas-Diener, R (2002), "Will Money Increase Subjective well-being?", Social Indicators Research, Vol. 57(2), 119-169

Diener, E and Seligman, M.E.P (2004) "Beyond Money: Toward and Economy of Well-Being, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol 5, 1-31

Elgin, D (1981) "Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich." Harper Collins

Etzioni, A (1998) Voluntary Simplicity: Characterization, Select Psychological Implications and Societal Consequences. Journal of Economic Psychology, 19, 619-643

Herzberg, F.I. (1987), "One more time: How do you motivate employees?", Harvard Business Review, Vol. 65(5), 109-120

Kasser, T & Ahuvia, A (2002) Materialistic Values and Well-being in Business Students. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 137-146

Kasser, T & Ryan, R.M (1996) Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 410-422

Keough, K.A., Zimbardo, P.G. and Boyd, J.N. (1999). "Who's smoking, drinking and using drugs? Time perspective as a predictor of substance use" Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Vol. 21, 149 - 164.

Luthar, S (2003) The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth. Child Development, 74, 1581-1593

Luthar, S & Latendresse, S (2005) Children of the Affluent: Challenges to Well-being. Curr Dir Psychol Sci, 14, 49-53

Ray, P.H (1997) The Emerging Culture. American Demographics. 29-31

Richins, M.L & Dawson, S (1992) A Consumer Values Orientation for Materialism and its Measurement: Scale and Validation. Journal of Consumer Research, 19, 303-316

Roxburgh, S (2004) 'There Just Aren't Enough Hours in the Day': The Mental Health Consequences of Time Pressure. Journal of Health & Social Behaviour, 45, 115-131. 

Sachau, D (2007) Resurrecting the Motivation-Hygiene Theory: Herzberg and the Positive Psychology Movement. Human Resource Development Review, 6, 377

Scor, J (1998) The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downscaling and the New Consumer. New York, Basic Books

Thoreau, H.D (1854) Walden. New York. Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Zimbardo, P.G., Keough, K.A. and Boyd, J.N. (1997). "Present time perspective as a predictor of risk driving" Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 23, 1007 - 1023

Zimbardo, P (2008) "The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life." Simon & Schuster, New York

The Simple Living Network (

"Why Time Affluence Matters, and 10 Ways to Boost Yours" (