The Time Balance Problem

What social connection requires most is adequate time. (We examine this issue more thoroughly in chapter 6.) The Bhutanese have elevated the issue of time balance nearly to the top of their list of domains of Gross National Happiness. Bhutanese do pretty well in this regard. Karma Tshiteem, secretary of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Commission, points out that Bhutanese have thirty to forty paid vacation days plus twenty-four paid national holidays a year, and they want to keep it that way!18 Yet time pressures present clear challenges to happiness in most countries.

Michael Pennock, a population health specialist and statistician at the Vancouver Island Health Authority in Victoria, British Columbia, was invited to Bhutan to help develop its happiness questionnaire, and spent several months in the mountainous kingdom. Bhutanese officials, he explains, wanted the survey to be detailed and comprehensive. Early versions took more than a day to administer. One woman fainted while taking it.

Apparently, the Bhutanese were patient enough for such a long survey. But Pennock knew people in Western industrial countries, growing up in a culture of instant gratification, instant oatmeal, and instant messaging, would never tolerate a long questionnaire. So he developed one that takes only about thirty minutes.

If you're interested, the new, shorter questionnaire is available online at The questionnaire has been used in a scientific sampling of more than 2,400 residents in Victoria by a group called the Victoria Happiness Index Partnership. The same results regarding time use prevailed: While Victoria residents gave their overall quality of life a high rating of 76 (out of 100 — Denmark typically scores in the low 80s; the United States in the low 70s), their time balance score was only 46 (the lowest of all dimensions surveyed).

One finding from the survey was particularly revealing. Residents of Victoria scored highest in “freedom from deprivation” (92). Only 6 percent of them thought they'd be happier if they had more possessions. Yet 66 percent hoped for more financial security. They gave their financial security a 53 score; only time balance came in lower. Clearly, they were nervous about keeping their jobs and about what kind of safety net might await them if they were to be suddenly laid off work. This is a serious concern — and even more so for Americans who also stand to lose their health care when they lose their jobs.

“The results suggested that stress and problems of time-balance were the most important factors in limiting well-being across the regional population,” surmised the Victoria survey report. Interestingly, the Victoria results seem representative for Canada as a whole. Victoria is a prosperous community. But even in the economically depressed coal mining and fishing town of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, the results were similar.19 People are satisfied with the amount of stuff they possess, but worried about their financial security and badly pressed for time.

Susan Andrews says that the time crunch is also a powerful limit to happiness in Brazil. Andrews is an energetic American who moved to Brazil in 1992 and now runs Future Vision, a model “eco-village” and environmental learning center near São Paulo. Andrews helped persuade a small Brazilian city, a university, and a large company to assess the life satisfaction of their citizens, students, and employees. Natura, a large natural cosmetics company, polled its workers using the Bhutanese survey. While majorities reported overall satisfaction in every other area, only 30 percent felt positive about their time balance.20

As the Italian economist Stefano Bartolini of the University of Siena points out in his new book, Manifesto for Happiness (not yet published in English), these findings suggest that focusing our economic strategies and priorities on economic growth may well be counterproductive since it is likely to lead to even more overwork and time stress, while the methods we have used to speed economic growth over the past generation — tax cutting and deregulation — have led to even greater economic insecurity. (We cover this topic in more detail in chapter 5.)

We are now measuring life satisfaction in a major American city. With encouragement from the city council president, Richard Conlin, citizens of Seattle are forming a partnership like that in Victoria, and using the Pennock survey to assess their own life satisfaction.

Sustainable Seattle (the first organization in the world to develop local indicators of well-being back in 1991) has been leading that effort. Laura Musikanski, executive director of Sustainable Seattle, says she wants “to see Seattle become America's first Gross National Happiness City.” Once the survey is complete, town meetings will be held in Seattle neighborhoods to analyze the results and make policy recommendations to the city council. Repeating the survey every couple of years can then tell Seattle if it has made progress.21

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