A new U.S. study suggests that helping others boosts our sense of personal competence and efficiency, which in turn stretches out time in our minds.
And ultimately, giving time makes people more willing to commit to future engagements despite their busy schedules, says lead researcher Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania.
“In short, we propose that spending time on others makes people feel like they have done a lot with their time — and the more they feel they have done with their time, the more time they will feel they have,” concludes the study.
The findings were released online Friday in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The researchers used four different experiments, to test people’s subjective sense of having time, called "time affluence."
They found that compared with wasting time, spending time on oneself, and even gaining a windfall of "free" time, spending time on others increased participants’ feelings of time affluence.
The authors conclude with a word of caution.
"Despite these potentially multiplicative benefits of giving time, however, there is likely an upper limit at which giving time has negative consequences — for example, when giving time starts to impair people’s ability to be effective in their own lives."
Giving and receiving
The four experiments included:
1. A total of 218 participants (58 per cent female with a median age of 20) were randomly assigned to one of two five-minute tasks in which they either gave their time or wasted it.
Participants in the giving time condition wrote an encouraging note (which was subsequently mailed) to a gravely ill child. Participants in the wasting time condition were asked to complete a “filler task” that required counting “e’s” in multiple pages of Latin text.
“Although both giving time and wasting time signal that one has an abundance of time, only giving time led participants to perceive their time as more abundant.”
2. A total of 150 subjects (74 per cent female with a median age of 40) were randomly assigned to spend 10 or 30 minutes either doing something for themselves or for someone else that they had hadn’t planned that day.
Regardless of whether participants spent 10 or 30 minutes, spending time on another seemed to expand their sense of time compared with spending time on oneself.
It is consistent with research on the benefits of spending money on others versus on oneself. The amount of the resource spent matters less than whether it was spent on oneself or others.
3. This experiment tested the effect of giving time on feelings of time affluence against an even stricter standard: actually receiving an unexpected “windfall” of free time.
It involved a 15-minute task of editing an essay written by an at-risk student from a local public high school. A total of 136 subjects (58 per cent female with a median age of 20) were randomly assigned to two groups.
Half were given an essay and a red pen for editing; the rest were told that all of the essays had been edited and they could leave early.
Subjects who gave time felt as though they had more time than those who received an equivalent amount of “free” time. Moreover, participants who spent their time helping an at-risk student reported feeling that their time was less scarce.
4. Participants were randomly assigned to vividly describe a recent incident of doing something which was not part of their normal responsibilities — either for someone else or for themselves.
Consistent with the previous experiments, participants who remembered giving time felt as if they had more time than participants who remembered spending time on themselves.
The experiment included 105 participants with a median age of 34, 56 per cent were female.