If someone believes they have achieved happiness, they are left with the time to appreciate this.
People who pursue happiness often feel like they do not have enough time in the day, which paradoxically makes them feel unhappy, a study has found.
Researchers from Rutgers University in the US and University of Toronto Scarborough in Canada conducted four studies in which they investigated how the pursuit of happiness as well as the state of being happy influenced people's perception of time.
Pursuing happiness caused the participants to think of time as scarce.
In the studies, some participants were either instructed to list things that would make them happier or asked to try to make themselves feel happy while watching a dull movie about building bridges, thus demonstrating happiness as goal pursuit.
The other participants came to think of happiness as a goal that they had already accomplished, achieved by watching a slapstick comedy (rather than the bridge movie) or listing items showing that they are already happy.
Afterwards, all participants reported how much free time they felt they had.
The findings showed that a person's perception of time scarcity is influenced by their pursuit of happiness.
The feeling that time was scarce lessened for participants who maintained that they had attained their goal of being happy to some degree.
"Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit," researchers said.
"This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being," they said.
The findings, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, imply that while happiness can impair positive emotions, it need not necessarily do so.
Instead, if someone believes they have achieved happiness, they are left with the time to appreciate this, for instance by keeping a gratitude journal.
The research further underscores that people have different concepts about happiness, which in turn may well influence how they perceive the time they have to achieve happiness.
"Because engaging in experiences and savouring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoying leisure experiences," researchers said.
"By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness," they said.
Given the influence that time availability has on people's decision-making and well-being, it remains essential to understand when, why, and how they perceive and use their time differently in their pursuit of happiness and other goals.