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I just got back from a ten week journey through India. It started out as a two week sightseeing trip with the family, but my mother country had different plans for me.
It was day two, and we had just gotten back from viewing the sights of Delhi – an ancient fort, a modern bazaar, a few beautiful temples. We were all exhausted, so we went straight to bed.
But a few hours later, I woke for a midnight dalliance. I was driven by a compulsion.
I just had to go to the freaking bathroom.
It was a romance that grew only stronger with time – what was supposed to be just a once-off encounter became an unbreakable habit. It started with food poisoning, but turned into something more – cough, cold, sore throat, and finally, fever.
In between I also managed to visit the Taj Mahal, ride an elephant, and a bunch of other fun touristy stuff. Which was all nice, but not the reason I decided to say back an extra two months.
No, it wasn't because I was trying to lose weight, although food poisoning can do wonders for the waistline. It was because I had encountered a philosophy of life which bewildered me, and because I'd spent half of my time sightseeing and the other half sick, I'd had little time left over for the real cultural experience – mingling with the locals.
It was my first trip to India since I was a baby – my parents left in their twenties, and for 22 years didn't go back. Now as an adult, I understand why my parents kept me away for so long, and why they tried to convince me not to extend my trip – just like I try to escape the materialism of my culture, my parents tried to escape the ‘laziness' of theirs.
But I had been intrigued, so I stayed an extra two months.
The Guest is God
How would you respond if a friend asked to sleep on your bed for a week? How about if that friend said there was also going to be a +1 joining – a total stranger?
When I was miserable and sick and coughing all over the place, a total stranger, a friend of a friend, let me stay in her home and sleep on her bed. Her mother fed me, her friend drove me, she entertained me, and all three suggested I come back to visit again – which I did, two months later.
The kindness was mind-boggling. In America, a situation that like would be inconceivable. Attractive, 23 year old females don’t usually let sick, unknown men sleep on their bed for a week.
Not only did she have a boyfriend, he welcomed me himself and took me drinking. When I asked how they could be so kind, they gave me a simple response – “The Guest is God.”
But a few months later, I would learn that this kindness had less to do with religion, and more with the psychology of time.
Amit Bhaiyya, Play With Me!
After my family left and the sightseeing ended, I went to the state of Gujarat, to spend a few weeks with my grandparents. They’re getting old, so I figured I should spend some time with them before I no longer had that opportunity.
If you're not familiar with my appearance, I'm the guy with grandma on his lap. Besides her and my grandfather, I'm not related to anyone else in the picture – they're just a few of the locals. Not by chance, those locals turned out to be the friendliest neighbors I'd had in my entire life.
One of them, a college student, drove me around the city on his motorcycle whenever I wanted to go somewhere, even if he was busy with work. When I needed a translator, he was there, free of charge.
As school ended, kids would gradually fill the grounds outside. Their parents joined after they got back from work. The kids would play – everyone else would chat, often until late in the evening.
It's not like they didn't have other things to do – they all had computers and TVs.
They simply preferred the company of others.
A few times a week, one of the little ones would come up to my room and say, “Amit Bhaiyya, mara sathe rum.” In English, “Amit brother, play with me.”
It didn't matter if I was working or in the middle of something. They came up, expected me to drop what I was doing, and join them. Sometimes, they themselves were skipping out on school. A few rupees to the teacher and an A grade could be guaranteed.
At first it was annoying, “I've got stuff to do, leave me alone!” But with time, I started listening. At first, I'd tell them to wait an hour, until I finished whatever I was doing. Then it became a half-hour. Eventually, I became just like them – mid-sentence, I'd close my laptop, put on my sandals, and go get sweaty. I know, not the most productive way of getting work done.
But it wasn't just me or those kids – when I was staying with that stranger, she took a day off from work to show me around. Shops often closed after lunch so that workers could take a nap. Unplanned worker absenteeism is almost twice as high in India than the world as a whole – at some companies, 20% of the workforce at a time regularly calls in sick.1
Conscientiousness Is King
How to understand that kind behavior?
Most psychologists believe there are five fundamental components to personality, along which every person can be classified and understood.
Using this model, those work skipping Indians would be considered low on conscientiousness and high on agreeableness. How well does that classification hold up to reality?
Those low in conscientiousness:
- are worse employees, being more likely to call in sick and perform lower quality work.2,3
- are worse students, being more likely to procrastinate and get a lower GPA.4,5
- are worse citizens, being more likely to commit crime and live off of others.3,6
So… some of that is true, but some of it not. Indians don't have anything approaching a puritan work ethic, but they're no slobs either.
Those high in agreeableness:
- are more likely to trust others.13
- are more likely to help others.13
- are more likely to cooperate rather than compete.14
Again, some true, but some not. Take a drive around any of Indian's major cities, and you'll learn just how ‘agreeable' people can be. And by that, I mean that traffic signals get ignored, there are no lanes, cars don't signal, and I once had to carry my grandmother across a street for fear over her safety.
The five factor model just doesn't fit. We Americans have decided that the yardstick along which to judge other countries is economic power and growth – money. Using that yardstick, conscientiousness is king – America is best.
But conscientiousness and work-ethic isn't the defining difference between America and India. It's the choice of yardstick.
Time or Money?
That Indian stranger made her choice clear – she spent time with me rather than get paid to work.
We've made our choice clear as well – compared to the 1980s, we're spending more time with work, and less on family, friends, church going, recreation, and hobbies.7,8
Europeans sit somewhere in between, they don't skip work when they feel like it, but compared to the 1980s, most European citizens have significantly more leisure time. Germans, for example, spend 200 fewer hours per year working.8
But the German economy has also been growing half as fast. Not because they're lazy, but because with each passing year, they trade a little less of their time for money, spending, rather than investing.
What Balance is Best?
From the perspective of well-being, each extreme is stupid – workaholics and full-time hedonists are alike in their unhappiness. But, there are more than two dimensions. The dichotomy isn't as clear as enjoying the present vs. work for the future.
According to the new psychology of time, there are six dimensions:
Present focus is our natural state – that's how babies are born. What happens next is the result of culture and environment.
In cultures which value heritage and tradition, past perspective develops. That perspective can move towards the positive (remembering the past as a series of good events), or the negative (remembering the past as a series of regrets and victimizations).
In environments where uncertainty is prevalent, opportunity is slim, and investing for the future more a gamble than calculated choice, present focus develops. That perspective can move towards fatalism (“I can't control my life; there's no point trying”), or hedonism (“let's enjoy!”).
In cultures which value hard work, and in environments where investing for the future pays off, future focus develops. That perspective can move towards goal oriented (working hard to create prosperity for the future), or transcendence (working hard to ensure a place in heaven).
Each person contains a mix of these perspectives, with some stronger than others. The problem is that most cultures tend toward the extremes – the average Indian is high on past and present; the average American on future.9
What Combination Is Best?
I won't say that each perspective has something to offer in moderation – there are no benefits associated with past-negative and present-fatalism:
- Present-fatalism is correlated with unsafe sex, drug use, low self-esteem, and pessimism.9
- Past-negative is highly correlated with depression.10
But with the rest? All correlated with happiness, life satisfaction, vigor, chances of developing positive relationships, self-esteem, and more.10,11,12
According to Philip Zimbardo, the guy who wrote the Time Paradox and came up with and tested these ideas, the ideal time combination is high on past-positive and medium-high on future-goal oriented and present-hedonism.
There's a growing recognition in the west that time is meant to be enjoyed, just as much as it's meant to be invested. It's why millions of Americans are learning meditation – the value of being present is slowly being appreciated. But the past-positive? It's been ignored, although psychologists do their part by encouraging patients to re-frame their past in a positive light.
When one of my ex-girlfriends once game me a photo-album as a birthday present, I was bewildered – what am I supposed to do with it? Can I consume it for pleasure? Does it help me achieve my goals?
I'd forgotten how to reminiscence.
With that in mind, I suppose I should haven't been too surprised with my results from taking the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. I scored in the:
- 99.9 percentile for future-goal oriented. That is, I'm more goal-oriented than 999 out of 1,000 people.
- .5 percentile for present-hedonism. That is, I'm less hedonistic than 199 out of 200 people.
- 5th percentile for present-fatalist. That is, I think (within reason) that I can do anything.
- .2 percentile for past-positive. That is, I reminisce positively about my past exactly never.
Basically, I'm unbalanced as fuck. Half of which owes to my genes and upbringing, the other half to my fight with fibromyalgia, which I'll give a full accounting of next month. But I'm glad I took the test, and I'm glad I went to India.
Despite the number of positive changes I've implemented in my life since founding Happier Human (like gratitude) apparently, I'm still obsessed with the future. That's got to change.
1. Rampant Workplace Absenteeism Hurting India's Economy. International Business Times.
*I’ll admit a newspaper article isn't the best of sources. I could be wrong, although everything I heard anecdotally suggests otherwise.
2. J. F. Salgado (February 1997). “The five-factor model of personality and job performance in the European community”. Journal of Applied Psychology 82 (1): 30–43. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.82.1.30.PMID 9119797.
3. Roberts, B.W.; Jackson, J.J.; Fayard, J.V.; Edmonds, G. & Meints, J (2009). “Chapter 25. Conscientiousness”. In Mark R. Leary, & Rick H. Hoyle. Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior. New York/London: The Guildford Press. pp. 257–273. ISBN 978-1-59385-647-2.
4. Dewitt, S.; Schouwenburg, H. C. (2002). “Procrastination, temptations, and incentives: The struggle between the present and the future in procrastinators and the punctual”. European Journal of Personality 16 (6): 469–489.
5. Duckworth, A. L. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ predicting academic performance in adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944Ozer, D. J.; Benet-Martínez, V. (2006). “Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes”. Annual Review of Psychology 57: 401–421.
6. “Psychological Predictors of Long Life: An 80-year study discovers traits that help people to live longer.”. Psychology Today. June 5, 2012.
7. Myers, D. G. (2001). The American paradox: Spiritual hunger in an age of plenty. Yale University Press.
8. OECD Employment and Labour Market Statistics
9. The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time, by Philip Zimbardo.
10. Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1271.
11. Drake, L., Duncan, E., Sutherland, F., Abernethy, C., & Henry, C. (2008). Time perspective and correlates of wellbeing. Time & Society, 17(1), 47-61.
12. Boniwell, I., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). Balancing time perspective in pursuit of optimal functioning Ch 10. Positive psychology in practice. London’Wiley.
13. Costa, P. T., McCrae, R. R., & Dye, D. A. (1991). Facet scales for agreeableness and conscientiousness: a revision of tshe NEO personality inventory. Personality and Individual Differences, 12(9), 887-898.
14. Jensen‐Campbell, L. A., & Graziano, W. G. (2001). Agreeableness as a moderator of interpersonal conflict. Journal of Personality, 69(2), 323-362.