Only people who have got nowhere have time.
This way, they got farer than everybody else.

Guareschi

Let’s pause for a moment. What does this quote trigger? Did we agree with the first part, in which having (too) much free time is equaled with a lack of success? Maybe we thought of our full schedules and of our desire for having more time for the beautiful things in life – which we never grant us because of the many obligations urging on us. Who wants to be successful has to perform!

What then triggers the second part of the quote?

Giovannino Guareschi, a journalist, caricaturist, and the author of the wonderfully trenchant narratives about “Don Camillo and Peppone” was masterly in revealing discrepancies and visualize them with a wink.

Humans as Factors

Performance is crucial. This precept has shaped us socially; for the most of us it has become their own view and an inner motivator. It urges us and causes us to consistently set ourselves new aims to be reached. Sometimes however, it lets us forget what really helps to shape our lives meaningfully: the people around us. In our pressure to perform humans are often regarded as obstacles on the road to success or as means helping to accomplish goals. If we cleave to this view however, we have already forgot, that all essential achievements, all outstanding performances, but also all joys in life in the first place are made possible by relationships. We are all changed by interaction with our fellow human beings, which in turn makes development happen. Entirely new aspects emerge. Never perceptible perspectives can only be adopted by these interdependent vigors. Someone who beholds humans as factors and thinks he/she is able to perform independently from others, is off the track. It’s not solitary decisions, but communication, empathy, and fascination, which help us on.

Competencies as key to Success?

Time management systems, which should help us to work more efficiently and to use our time even better, behold competency development as a prerequisite for effective time management and higher quality of life. But what exactly means competency? In management literature of the last decades this term has been used as a conglomeration of abilities, skills, and experiences, as preparedness to and results from actions, with a mingle of preconditions and consequences of behavior relevant for success. From an economic psychological point of view competencies are seen as holistic manifestations of practically relevant abilities. Thereby we are approaching the core of the meaning, which can also be found in ancient and timeless heritages of all cultures: Real personal effectiveness is not achieved by an endless perfection of one’s skills, but derives from a combination of prowess and disposition. Personal development and character building are the key to a meaningful life.

Success and Happiness

Does success make us happy? People who lead sober and simple lives often seem to us as exceptionally happy. This observation – together with Guareschi’s quote – could lead us to the assumption that true happiness can only be found in very ordinary circumstances. From close up however, this view is more often used as an excuse with which we, as members of highly developed meritocracies and prosperous societies, are justifying the fact that wealth is extremely disparately and injustly distributed. Contrary to this, findings of research on happiness indicate that material security and professional success are important factors for happiness. Why then are so few of us happy? Maybe we are much too often our own enemies. Before asking: “Am I doing it right?”, we should pose the question: “Am I doing the right thing?” Instead of getting lost in perfection we should lower our inflated expectations, see the big picture, and be flexible and willing to compromise. Timely relaxation and interesting discussions with others will allow us not only to work more effectively, but also to acknowledge important things.

Maybe then the achiever in us sometimes feels as if he/she has got nowhere. And still, we have got farer.

References:

Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1995). First things first. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hanisch, H. (2012). Soft Skills-Knigge 2100: Soziale Kompetenz, Persönlichkeit, Selbstmanagement. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH.

Meyer, A.-M. (2004). Die Macht der Kürze: das 1×1 der Realität. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH.

Schuler, H. (2006). Arbeits- und Anforderungsanalyse. Lehrbuch der Personalpsychologie, 2, 45-68. Göttingen: Hogrefe

Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.

France

“Everything was better in the old days…“

Know this saying? How often has it made our eyes roll, yet? – And how often have we caught ourselves in thinking it? Even if we suffered from peer pressure or some teacher’s despotism when we were children, as adults we long for the lightheartedness of our childhood and youth. Parents of adolescents think their present difficulties much more serious than their former, when problems were sleepless nights and stomach aches. Older people, even if they experienced hardship and privation, nostalgically remember the times when they were young and healthy.

The French author Anatole France lived in the 19th century; he couldn’t know of the findings of modern brain research. Still, he found the right words to describe this phenomenon.

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The Constructive Mind

Why do we transfigure our past into the “good old times”? In order to answer this question it is helpful to know something about of the function of episodic memory. Our ability to retrieve past experiences allows us a kind of “mental time travel”. However, memories aren’t filed as consistent and exact mental images of certain episodes, even though it seems to us our memories are stored like a kind of movie recording. Rather episode are retained in separate elements. When retrieved, memories are formed by a recombination of these discrete information units. This makes our brains exceedingly flexible and efficient, it gives rise to memory errors though. We don’t have to be police officers or prosecutors to be able to imagine the problems arising from different witnesses’ statements of people who witnessed the exact same incident and remember it differently.

Protective Function of Memory Errors

Even if our memory is fragmentary and defective: The constructive functionality of our memories accomplishes an important task. It protects us against bitterness and depression. A mental excursion into the “good old days” typically is emotional, intense, and lively. We play the lead ourselves, and negative situations become better and better the longer we dwell on them. That way, our brains shelter us from bad mood.

Create Memories

Now, should we just wait in the confidence of the automatic transformation of all our negative experiences into positive ones? We can surely depend on the universal functioning of our brains; nevertheless, we can contribute to our experience of the here and now as good days: meeting friends and splitting ours sides laughing, dancing our hearts out, coming together with others and having wonderful times…

This way, today will become “good old times” even without memory errors.

References:

Bartsch, T. (Ed.). (2013). Gedächtnisstörungen: Diagnostik und Rehabilitation. Berlin: Springer.

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia past, present, and future. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(5), 304-307.

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Einstein

Remember those sheer endless seeming math or English lessons? This virtually limitless treasure of free days lying ahead of us at the beginning of summer holidays which, looking back seemed much too short? When watching children dividing the waiting time until a special event into “only x more sleeps”, while for adults the time until the same event slips like sand through their fingers – do we ever wonder why time perception can be so much different?

The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein summarized his observation of time perception in his “alternative” theory of relativity, but he neither could give us a satisfactory explanation.

The Internal Clock

One thing is certain: We don’t have a sensory organ which is responsible for time measurement. Nevertheless, many of our perceptions and the reactions to them are strongly dependent on us estimating time correctly. How could we dare to cross a street without being able to anticipate, if we will make it before the next car arrives? How could we plan any activities without knowing at least roughly how long they will take? Although researching for years, scientists still don’t agree on how exactly we perceive time periods. Some assume that our perception of time periods results from an assigned clockwork-like neuronal mechanism; others hypothesize that time periods are coded in easily accessible form as a specific and ubiquitous feature of neuronal activity. In one thing they agree though: time perception requires attention to a certain degree. This could explain why some activities seem to us particularly long, others exceptionally short.

Factors Influencing Time Perception

Time perception is a cognitive process. Our brains have to allocate attention to it, even if we aren’t aware of it. Time perception therefore is dependent on how much attention can be assigned to it and on how much additional information has to be processed simultaneously. The more other information processing procedures are performed, the less attention is available for time perception, so that we finally estimate time incorrectly. If we are busy with things we are much interested in, our brains can only process few time units, and we underestimate time intervals. The time flies.

Additionally, time perception is – as well as all other cognitive processes – influenced by our emotions: by our arousal and the fact, if we feel good or bad at present. In low arousal, positive emotions will cause an overestimation of time periods, while negative emotions will make us feel like time is flying. If we are highly aroused however, positive emotions will effect in an underestimation of time periods. Hence, we possess two different “time systems”, of which one is responsible for situations of low arousal, the other becomes relevant in situations of high arousal. This is explained by the fact, that for our ancestors already time perception in situations with low arousal and negative emotions loomed large. In such incidents they had to decide, whether to fight or flight. A differential processing of time units hence was vital.

Making Time Fly

Even if we don’t yet exactly know how our brain measures time, we normally have a very good instinct for what to do to have a good time. If our professional life is full of never ending meetings and long-winded reports, we should at least plan activities for our leisure time which we will enjoy, which will fascinate and inspire us.

This only has one drawback: Time will go by in a flash.

References:

Angrilli, A., Cherubini, P., Pavese, A., & Manfredini, S. (1997). The influence of affective factors on time perception. Perception & psychophysics, 59(6), 972-982.

Ivry, R. B., & Schlerf, J. E. (2008). Dedicated and intrinsic models of time perception. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(7), 273-280.

Life is short. Not because of its short duration, but rather because of this short period there is not enough left to enjoy it.

J.-J. Rousseau

“When was the last time I felt really happy?“ – When wondering about this question most of us think of a certain experience: the day we met our partner for the first time, the last pay raise, the moment we drove our brand-new car. It is the same for many, if we ask ourselves when we expect to be happy again. For children this may be this one and special birthday present they long for, for adults it may be the next promotion they have been aiming at for so long. Most of us are chasing after certain events hoping to be happy again. But what’s with the time between? How is our answer, if asked: “Am I happy now?”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author and philosopher, not only was an important pioneer for the French Revolution, but with his ethical basic position revealed ways still took up by behavioral scientists and psychologists when investigating the question what can make us truly and permanently happy: Instead of establishing general rules, he showed what interest an individual has in acting in the sense of community.

The phenomenon of Hedonic Adaptation

Most people have a certain objective in mind and are working hard to achieve it finally. When we reach this goal, this leads to an increase in our perception of satisfaction. We feel happy – unfortunately however, only temporary. Ultimately we find ourselves back in the initial situation and are as happy (or unhappy) as before. This quickly leads us to aim for the next goal: Again, we spend a lot of time and energy to reach it in the hope to experience a new moment of happiness.

Behavioral scientists call this phenomenon „hedonic adaptation“ and it actually has its advantages. On the one hand, it encourages us to set ever new targets, to make progress and to explore new things. On the other, with negative experiences it works as self-healing mechanism. Because after setbacks and disappointments, we sooner or later find ourselves in the initial situation as well and learn to get over negative events.

This explains why alas, we accustom to positive experiences, too; why after a short period in which we perceive it so intensely, happiness disappears.

The Struggle against habituation

If “hedonic adaptation“ is a fully natural and party beneficial mechanism, does this mean we are helplessly exposed to it? Can’t we ever raise our satisfaction lastingly?

Yes and no.

Natural processes will always have their effects on us, will influence our thought, actions, and feelings. If we don’t actively oppose them, we are exposed to them, indeed. However, they can impose their greatest impact when they work in completely unconscious minds. This in turn gives us a chance to oppose them: The first step is to live more consciously.

If we take positive events or twists of fate for granted, we won’t be able to appreciate them. If we let others determine our goals, e.g. if we strive for more income or recognition instead of being led by our own curiosity or self-respect, neither the achievement nor the way to it will make us happy. Heading for the next goal leads us to miss the many daily opportunities to act in the sense of community, as Rousseau proposed. Put simply: We miss the options to give small moments of happiness to others. When was the last time we gave our seat to someone else in the subway? When did we offer help without being asked? When did we provide our partners with a bit of happiness without there being a special occasion?

In all action and striving it is the little things which make a difference. They don’t cost any money, however, mindfulness, rethinking, and change of behavior patterns often cost a lot of effort. The reward though is priceless: We will enjoy our time.

References:

Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. in: Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. D. Kahneman, E. Diener, N. Schwarz (Eds.). New York, NY, US: Russell Sage Foundation, xii, 593 pp.

Papies, E. K., Barsalou, L. W., & Custers, R. (2012). Mindful attention prevents mindless impulses. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(3), 291-299.