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June 19, 2008

The Time Paradox

mary tyler moore in front of wall of international clocks

Stuck in the moment: News producer Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) sweats the small stuff.

Photo Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

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Somehow, Philip Zimbardo, one of America's most influential psychologists, with a professor emeritus gig at Stanford and more than 50 books to his credit, found time to sort through 36 years of research about, well, time. He observed that we tend to fixate on either the past (nostalgics), the present (hedonists), or the future (goal-oriented workaholics like you). In his latest, The Time Paradox (Simon & Schuster), Zimbardo makes the case for shifting the focus. A few suggestions:

IF HAPPINESS IS ALWAYS IN THE FUTURE, THEN YOU'LL NEVER BE HAPPY. By always looking to the next goal, you don't appreciate the present, says Zimbardo. And humans are just not good at predicting what will float our boats: We can work for a decade to reach Director and not realize until we get there that we had it wrong. The good news is that we're also bad at predicting our unhappiness, so even if you've been busting ass to keep your job, odds are getting fired won't make you as miserable as you thought it would.

DON'T GET CAUGHT IN THE DATING TIME WARP. New love makes us "present-oriented imbeciles deaf to the language of the future," says Zimbardo. (Hello, staying up till 3 talking on a school night.) Have fun with your new BF, but keep in mind that if you don't sort out what tense he lives in, at some point you may be wondering where your 2.5 kids are while he's thinking about tying one on that night.

THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR TIME IS ENJOY IT. Americans are taught to value hard work over pleasure. "Time spent working is considered productive, while time spent being happy is considered wasted," says Zimbardo. But it's a nonrenewable resource. Keep happiness from falling "to 10th place on the to-do list behind picking up the dry-cleaning," he says, by carving out an hour each day to do exactly what you want to do. And don't bail on that date with yourself.

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