The problem is not too little time it's that people want too much


June 26, 1994|By Geoffrey Godbey | Geoffrey Godbey,Special to the Sun

When I'm driving and discover I'm lost, I have a tendency to drive faster and faster. This curious response could serve as an analogy for Americans' use and perceptions of time. American life goes faster and faster, perhaps because we're less and less sure where we're going.

Time, for millions of Americans, has become the ultimate scarcity. A recent survey by Pennsylvania State University researchers found that 47 percent of Americans think they have less free time than they did five years ago, and more than one-third of the respondents in the national sample said they "always" feel rushed. We seem to be in the middle of a time famine.

In spite of our perceptions, however, the largest studies of Americans use of time indicate we have gained almost an hour of free time a day during the last few decades.

But if the amount of free time is expanding, true leisure time is not. Our perceptions and behavior are out of synch. While we think free time is supposed to translate into a slower pace of life, making life more tranquil and leisurely, the opposite appears to be happening. We feel more rushed.

True leisure is an idea no longer understood in our society. In fact, many Americans have developed dysfunctional attitudes toward time. We view time as an infinitely expandable resource, which means, almost by definition, that one can never have enough time -- even though we have all there is.

In "The Overworked American" author and Harvard professor Juliet Schor says the work-and-spend cycle that characterizes our society represents a kind of decadence -- materialism carried to obscene heights. While she argues we are working longer hours, "trapped in capitalism's squirrel cage," I maintain we are actually caught in the endless economic and experiential expectations we have created for ourselves. We are not so much squirrels running endless circles as small frogs attempting to swallow the moon.

We will have to increase our ability to appreciate if we are to slow down. We will have to lower our expectations.

Our lives are short like vaporizing steam, but prosperity has made many of us so ignorant and arrogant that we no longer understand our own insignificance nor marvel at the great floating cosmos. Our sense of wonder, all-important to our ability to appreciate, has been deadened.

Happiness is loving the process of life -- the delicious dance of ideas, mysteries and seasons -- rather than its products. It is loving what has no name.

How can we "make" more time? We should be asking another, more important question: What is worth doing with with the time we have?

Geoffrey Godbey is a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is currently working on a book titled "Time for Life."


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