Why do people feel so rushed? Part of this is a perception problem. On average, people in rich countries have more leisure time than they used to. This is particularly true in Europe, but even in America leisure time has been inching up since 1965, when formal national time-use surveys began. American men toil for pay nearly 12 hours less per week, on average, than they did 40 years ago—a fall that includes all work-related activities, such as commuting and water-cooler breaks. Women’s paid work has risen a lot over this period, but their time in unpaid work, like cooking and cleaning, has fallen even more dramatically, thanks in part to dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves and other modern conveniences, and also to the fact that men shift themselves a little more around the house than they used to.
The problem, then, is less how much time people have than how they see it. Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.
Individualistic cultures, which emphasise achievement over affiliation, help cultivate this time-is-money mindset. This creates an urgency to make every moment count, notes Harry Triandis, a social psychologist at the University of Illinois. Larger, wealthy cities, with their higher wage rates and soaring costs of living, raise the value of people’s time further still. New Yorkers are thriftier with their minutes—and more harried—than residents of Nairobi. London’s pedestrians are swifter than those in Lima. The tempo of life in rich countries is faster than that of poor countries. A fast pace leaves most people feeling rushed. “Our sense of time”, observed William James in his 1890 masterwork, “The Principles of Psychology”, “seems subject to the law of contrast.”