âLet us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” — Isaiah 22:13
âGather ye rosebuds while ye may” — Robert Herrick
âYOLO” — Drake
For as long as humans have been human, we’ve been reminding each other that life is short andÂ we’d bestÂ make the most of it. Today, thanks to a team of academic researchersÂ from Cambridge, Cal State and elsewhere, we’ve finally got some hard evidence that âlive every day like it’s your lastâ isn’t just a dank Instagram meme â it’s also sound psychological advice.
For their experiment, the researchers gathered two groups of undergraduate students at an American university and assigned them to one of two conditions. They asked 70 students to âimagine having only 30 days left before moving away and to intentionally engage in activities and spend time with people they will miss after they are gone.â The idea was to activate âa sense of temporal scarcityâ to get the students to savor and appreciate their surroundings for a period of four weeks.
A control group of 69 students was asked to simply record a detailed journal of their activities over the same time period.
At the end of the period, as well as two weeks afterward, the students filled out a common assessment used to measure their subjective satisfaction with life, using statements likeÂ âin most ways my life is close to idealâ or âthe conditions of my life are excellent.â This isn’t a measure of fleeting, day-to-day happiness, but rather of a deeper level of personal fulfillment.
At the beginning of the study period, the two groups of students rated themselves identically on this measure of fulfillment. But the students asked to imagine only 30 days left in their surroundings became âmore motivated to plan, do and enjoy activitiesâ like spending time with friends or visiting special places,Â the researchers found.
By the time of the final assessment, six weeks after the start of the experiment, the students asked to focus on a scarcity of time rated themselves as significantly more satisfied with their lives than those who simply filled out time diaries.
âCollege students who were prompted to savor the next 30 days showed steeper gains in well-being over time than students in the control group, thus supporting our prediction that framing time as limited helps people derive greater happiness from their surroundings,â the authors write.
Why would this be?Â In the researchers’ words, it’s unclear whether the experimental condition âprompted people to engage in more pleasant activities or because it prompted the active appreciation and enjoyment of those activities.â It could be that thinking of your time in a place as limited makes you go out and do more things to enjoy your time in that place â research consistently shows that being active and forming close social bonds are keys to enjoying life.
But it could also be true that focusing on the finitude of time makes you more likely to appreciate and savor the things you’re already doing.
This particular study comes with all the limitations you’d expect in research like this. The subjects were all college students, and in this case overwhelmingly white and female, so it’s an open question how much these findings generalize out to the entire population.
The researchers characterize their findings as âpreliminary evidenceâ and call on others to replicate their work with other populations.
But the research adds some quantitative heft to near-universal maxims about âmaking hay while the sun shines.âÂ If the findings validate the qualitative work of thinkers as diverse as Dave Matthews and the Nihilist Arby’s Twitter account, it suggests there’s something real here.