#4: Irishmen walk faster than Indonesians – but are they happier?

In 1748, Benjamin Franklin said that time is money, but he was talking rubbish. Time isn’t money; time is everything – after all, you can’t take your bank balance with you when you go.

Unfortunately, ever since the eighteenth century, when clocks were first used to quantify labour and Benjamin foolishly equated time with money, we’ve been increasingly anxious about how we spend ours. It’s perverse, but rather than leading to increased feelings of comfort and security, a rising economy makes us feel harried and time-poor.

As the economy grows, so do wages, making workers’ time more valuable, and the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems and the more anxious people are to use it most profitably.

Psychologists Robert Levine and Ara Norenzayan found that pedestrians in Ireland, Germany and Japan walk significantly faster than those in Mexico, Indonesia and Jordan. Citizens of Zurich, Rome and Vienna were likewise found to be much better at judging the passing of time than those of El Salvador, Nairobi and Damascus.

As Levine and Norenzayan noted, “[f]aster paced places will tend to be more economically productive which then raises the value of time and, subsequently, the pace of life.” It’s precisely because of their economic success that these fast-paced places have higher incidences of stress-related physical problems, such as coronary heart disease.

Rather than pots of money, what makes us happy is having bags of time – or, more accurately, feeling like we have bags of time. When psychologists tricked a group of unwitting subjects into volunteering for an extra fifteen minutes’ labour, they discovered that their generous dupes felt more time affluent than the control group who had not been cajoled into giving up their free time.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but this experiment shows that if you act as if you have all the time in the world, you will feel as if you have all the time in the world. It’s a classic example of William James’s Theory of Emotion, where the body leads the mind. As the researchers conclude:

“When individuals feel time constrained, they should become more generous with their time – despite their inclination to be less so.”

What’s this got to do with my decision to quit flying? Well, if you act like a stressed-out jet-setter, you’ll feel like one. Travelling faster, as Ireland’s speedy pedestrians demonstrate, doesn’t mean you’ll travel happy. In fact, you’re more likely to feel stressed.

No Aeroplanes is about turning our conventional ideas about travel on their head. As sociologist Peter Peters puts it:

“I will challenge … the idea that time spent travelling can be reduced to a neutral and measured unity which can be saved if we speed up. The core of my argument is that travel not only takes time, but it also makes time.”

Further Reading

Levine, R. V., and A. Norenzayan. ‘The Pace of Life in 31 Countries’. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 30, no. 2 (1 March 1999): 178–205. doi:10.1177/0022022199030002003.

Kasser, Tim and Sheldon, Kennon M. ‘Time Affluence as a Path toward Personal Happiness and Ethical Business Practice: Empirical Evidence from Four Studies’. Journal of Business Ethics 84, no. S2 (2008): 243-55.

Dunn, Elizabeth and Norton, Michael. Happy Money: The New Science of Smarter Spending. Oneworld 2013. p53ff, p76

Mogilner, C., Z. Chance, and M. I. Norton. ‘Giving Time Gives You Time’. Psychological Science 23, no. 10 (1 October 2012): 1233–38. doi:10.1177/0956797612442551.

Peters, Peter Frank. Time, innovation and mobilities: travel in technological cultures. Taylor & Francis, 2006. p1

This post is an extract from the book You Are What You Don’t by David Charles. Please share, please credit!

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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