The Psychology of Time

Time Spiral by gadl.

Time Spiral by gadl

Time.  It may be our most valuable resource for without it, nothing else matters. It also may be the resource we most take for granted, squandering it foolishly by watching re-runs of American Idol or whiling away the hours in a job that brings no meaning or satisfaction.  Our relationship with time permeates every aspect of life and culture: how we live, how we work and how we relate to each other.

In “A Geography of Time” Robert Levine explores the dimension of time in a way that will make you think twice every time you look at a clock.  He reveals the history of our relationship with time and how it has evolved through the centuries.  Although it is hard to imagine a life without clocks, the culture of living by timepieces is relatively new.  For most of history, man relied on natural cues to plan or schedule events (if they even deigned it necessary to plan or schedule at all.)

Ironically, as technology has helped us to get better and better at measuring and understanding time, rather than becoming its master, we have become its slave.  Although we have grown in financial wealth, technological advancement, and scientific knowledge, we are more time impoverished than ever before.  Levine points out that the wealthier a nation becomes, the less time they seem to have.  What is the point of accumulating wealth if it does not give us more control over our time?  Why does technology seem to eat up our time rather than giving us more back?

These are important questions since our relationship with time seems to be an essential ingredient in the study of human flourishing.  It is more complex than simply focusing on the present moment (see my article on “The Power of Before and After” from Organic Spa Magazine).  Psychologists have shown that people with a greater awareness and consideration of the future are more likely to make lifestyle choices that lead to greater health, success and well-being (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008).  Recent studies have also shown that people who mentally transport themselves to another time, either imagining a positive future (Quoidbach, Wood, & Hansenne, 2009) or replaying events from the past (Vitterso, Overwien, & Martinsen, 2009) can improve their feelings of pleasure and well-being.

One of my favorite research studies, highlighted in Ellen Langer’s new book, “Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility” (2009) had participants transport themselves back in time and “live as if” they were twenty years younger.  After a couple weeks of immersing themselves in their past, the participants showed actual signs of rejuvenation.  By manipulating their thoughts about time, they were able to change their health and well-being.  I call it the “Cocoon effect”.

In my work in the spa industry, I have come to believe that these elements of time are an important part of the spa experience.  What gives greater benefit:  The therapeutic experience of a massage or other spa treatment?  Or simply the act of slowing down and taking an hour or two to relax and participate in your own well-being?  I have my theories . . . what are yours?

References and recommended reading:

Boniwell I., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). Balancing time perspective in pursuit of optimal functioning.  In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.) Positive Psychology in Practice. Hoboken, NJ:  Wiley & Sons.

Langer, E. (2005).  Mindfulness versus positive evaluation.  In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford.

Langer, E. (2009).  Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine Books.

Quoidbach, J., Wood, A., & Hansenne, M. (2009).  Back to the future: The effect of daily practice of mental time travel into the future on happiness and anxiety.  The journal of positive psychology, 4(5), 349-355.

Vitterso, J., Overwien, P. & Martinsen, E. (2009). Pleasure and interest are differentially affected by replaying versus analyzing a happy life moment.  The journal of positive psychology, 4(1), 14-20.

Zimbardo, P. & Boyd (2008). The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life.  New York: Free Press.

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7 Responses to The Psychology of Time

  1. Mark A McKenney July 13, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    I like your statement that all elements or time are important in spa for you, your staff, the director or whomever. We all are under the same guide/rules that everyone before time has been or will be (or until Ray Kurzweil has his way or thinks it). We all continuously learn to work with time daily in whatever we are doing (mindfulness?). I have learned that by doing a massage (yoga, the elliptical trainer) or other repetitive motion I “slow down” time for me. (Is this being in the moment?) Now how to further this practice to “live as if” I do not have worries or fears….

    Dallas, Texas

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar July 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    In Positive Psychology in a Nutshell, Ilona Boniwell notes how we discuss time in very financial terms: we try to save it, spend it, waste it, invest it. Her observation is very a propos with your comment that the wealthier a nation becomes, the less time they seem to have. So it seems that as we learn that time is money, we also learn about its scarcity. Not sure exactly where I’m going with this, but that’s the reflection your article prompted for me!

    With regards to your question, I think both the slowing down and the massage itself really make a difference. It’s in the combination of the 2 that the magic happens!


  3. Jessica Durivage July 13, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,
    I really enjoyed your post. A friend just sent me this note: I apologize for the length, but she just sent it yesterday and seems fitting for your post bot time. Enjoy.

    Imagine that you had won the following prize in a contest:
    Each morning your bank would deposit $86,400.00 in your private account for your use.
    However, this prize has rules, just as any game has certain rules.

    The first set of rules would be:
    Everything that you didn’t spend during each day would be taken away from you, you may not simply transfer money
    into some other account, you may only spend it. Each morning upon awakening, the bank opens your account with another $86,400.00 for that day.

    The second set of rules:
    The bank can end the game without warning; at any time it can say: “It’s over, the game is over!”
    It can close the account and you will not receive a new one.

    What would you personally do?
    You would buy anything and everything you wanted, right?
    Not only for yourself, but for all people you love, right?

    Even for people you don’t know, because you couldn’t possibly spend it all on yourself, right?
    You would try to spend every cent, and use it all, right?


    Each of us is in possession of such a magical bank. We just can’t seem to see it.

    Each morning we awaken to receive 86,400 seconds as a gift of life, and when we go to sleep at night,
    any remaining time is NOT credited to us. What we haven’t lived up that day is forever lost.

    Yesterday is forever gone.

    Each morning the account is refilled, but the bank can dissolve your account at any time….WITHOUT WARNING.

    SO, what will YOU do with your 86,400 seconds? Aren’t they worth so much more than the same amount in dollars?

    Think about that, and always think of this:
    Enjoy every second of your life, because time races by so much quicker than you think.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy July 15, 2010 at 7:51 pm #

    Thanks for the comments. I especially love the idea of spending $86,400 every day. That really made me think!


  5. Eric Mieles July 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    @Jessica Wow that really made me think. Thank you for posting. I also got inspired a while back after finding a video about the power of time.

  6. Alicante Car Hire November 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    last week our class held a similar discussion about this topic and you show something we haven’t covered yet, thanks.

    – Lora


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