Writing is my passion. Last year, however, for a period of a few months, I did not look forward to writing, considered it as somewhat of a chore, and did not find it as fulfilling as I usually do. Why? Because something that I've come to see as one of the most important components of a happy life was missing: time.
During that period, I was putting the final touches on my book, which I had promised my publishers before the year end, and at the same time was traveling around the United States conducting workshops and giving lectures. While I was doing things that I love -- teaching and writing are both highly enjoyable and deeply meaningful to me -- I had overcommitted myself. I compromised on my happiness because I had too much on my plate.
That so many of us are overcommitted may explain the surprising results of a study conducted by Israeli Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues. Women were asked to list and describe the activities in which they engaged the previous day, and then report on how they felt during each activity. The women listed eating, working, taking care of their children, shopping, commuting, socializing, intimate relations, housework, and so on. The most unexpected finding was that, on aggregate, mothers did not particularly enjoy the time they spent taking care of their children.
We are too busy, trying to squeeze more and more activities into less and less time.
Norbert Schwartz, one of Kahneman's coauthors on the article, explains the counterintuitive results of the study: "When people are asked how much they enjoy spending time with their kids they think of all the nice things -- reading them a story or going to the zoo. But they don't take the other times into account, the times when they are trying to do something else and find the kids distracting." There is little doubt that most parents find child-rearing meaningful -- possibly the most meaningful experience in their lives -- and yet as a result of having too much to do, the joy they derive from spending time with their children is greatly diminished. Cell phones, emails, the information highway -- the overall rising complexity of modern life -- all contribute to the constant time pressure, and to the experience of potentially enjoyable activities as distracting.
Time pressure is pervasive and, to some extent, accounts for the culture-wide increase in rates of depression. We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze more and more activities into less and less time. Consequently, we fail to savor, to enjoy, potential sources of happiness that may be all around us -- whether it is our work, a class, a piece of music, the landscape, our soul mate, or even our children.
What can we do, then, to enjoy our lives more despite the fast-paced rat race environment so many of us live in?
The answer to this question contains both bad news and good news. The bad news is that, unfortunately, there are no magic bullets -- or magic pills. We must simplify our lives; we must slow down. The good news is that simplifying our lives, doing less rather than more, does not have to come at the expense of success.
Shabbat: Day of Rest
One of the most important forms of simplifying our lives and slowing down comes in the form of introducing a weekly day of rest into our lives.
Taking a day off each week seems, to many, a luxury they cannot afford -- when, in fact the opposite is the case. If our physical and mental health are important to us -- if being successful is important to us -- we cannot afford to work seven days a week. Just like our body needs to rest after a hard workout (or at least a change of pace), so does our mind. Without rest, our bodies and minds will ultimately experience fatigue, be prone to injuries, and perform sub-optimally. Shabbat, a weekly day of rest, helps us to recover. We emerge stronger, calmer, and, yes, happier.
As the commentator Ohr HaChaim writes: Shabbat provides both a change of routine, and an immersion in both physical and spiritual delights. As such, it is our fount of inspiration for the remaining six weekdays.
American philosopher Henry David Thoreau admonished his contemporaries back in the 19th century to reduce the complexity in their daily lives: "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen." Thoreau's words are even more pertinent today, as our world becomes more complex and the pressure seems to mount by the nanosecond.
Time is a limited resource, and there are too many competing demands on this limited resource. Our immoderate busy-ness, the stress so many of us experience so much of the time, makes us unhappy across many areas of our life. Psychologists Susan and Clyde Hendrick point to the importance of simplifying for a healthy relationship: "If we can help people to simplify their lives, thus reducing their stress levels, it is very likely that people's relationships (including love and intimacy) would be enriched greatly. Moreover, the positive aspects of their lives would be enriched accordingly."
Time affluence is a better predictor of well-being than material affluence.
Psychologist Tim Kasser shows in his research that time affluence is a better predictor of well-being than material affluence. Time affluence is the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful, to reflect, to engage in leisure. Time poverty is the feeling that one is constantly stressed, rushed, overworked, behind. All we need to do is look around us -- and often within ourselves -- to realize the pervasiveness of time poverty in our culture.
To raise our levels of well-being, there is no way around simplifying our lives. This means safeguarding our time, learning to say "no" more often -- to people as well as opportunities -- which is not easy. It means prioritizing, choosing activities that we really, really want to do, while letting go of others. Fortunately, though, doing less does not necessarily entail compromising on our success.
It's instructive to note that the great spiritual figures of Jewish history were shepherds. Being alone, a shepherd has a lot of time to think. There are no distractions, no appointments to keep. They become fully engaged in the present, they can open up to life's greatest possibilities.
We see this manifest in the story of Moses, who was shepherding in the desert. Moses saw the Burning Bush and said to himself: "I must investigate this phenomenon." Others had walked past the bush with no more than a fleeting glance. But Moses had the presence of mind -- and more importantly the time -- to stop, notice and engage. The result changed human history forever.
When Less Is More
In her Harvard Business Review article, "Creativity Under the Gun," Teresa Amabile dispels the myth that working under pressure yields better results: "When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed. Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively." While working hard is certainly necessary for success, working too hard will probably hurt, not help, that success.
Time pressure leads to frustration, and when we're frustrated or experience other negative emotions, our thinking becomes more constricted, narrower, and less broad and creative. Moreover, Amabile found that people are unaware of this phenomenon and live under the illusion that when they are experiencing time pressure they are also more creative. This explains why it is so difficult to get out of the pressure cooker, the rat race: the perception of creativity leads to the perpetuation of the stress.
In the words of the Mussar masters of Kelm: "Be careful with time, for it is more precious than all the gold."
Amabile's study revealed the phenomenon of "pressure hangover" -- in which high levels of pressure decreased creativity not only for the period in which the person felt pressured, but for up to days later. When we try to do too much, we compromise our potential for growth, both in terms of the ultimate currency as well as in terms of our quantifiable success. As J. P. Morgan, one of the most successful and creative entrepreneurs of all time, said, "I can do a year's work in nine months, but not in twelve." Sometimes, indeed, less is more.
Even if the individual activities in which we engage have the potential to make us happy, we can still be unhappy on aggregate. Just as the most delicious food in the world -- be it chocolate, Caviar, or even falafel -- cannot be enjoyed if consumed in too large quantities, neither can we enjoy activities, no matter how potentially "delicious" they are, if we have too much of them. Quantity affects quality; there can be too much of a good thing.
A wine connoisseur does not chug the entire glass of wine in one gulp; to fully enjoy the richness of the drink, she smells, she tastes, she savors, she takes her time. To become a life connoisseur, to enjoy the richness that life has to offer, we, too, need to take our time.