Here’s a question: If you were told that you were going to have to move away from your current town in a mere 30 days, how would you spend your remaining time there? 

That’s precisely what my colleagues and I asked a group of college students in a recent study. We were curious what their priorities would be as they imagined their time in their college town drawing to a close: Who would they spend their time with? What would they do? They checked in with us weekly, reporting on their actions and feelings. Compared to a neutral control group, those who lived the subsequent month as if it was their last showed a significant increase in happiness over the course of the month—and at a six-week follow-up.

     Jaime L. Kurtz Ph.D.
    Jaime L. Kurtz Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at James Madison University in Virginia. Her research focuses on strategies for savoring and well-being and has recently been published in journals such as Psychological Science, the Journal of Positive Psychology, and Developmental Psychology. Her first book, The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations, (link is external)will be published in June of 2017 by Oxford University Press.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

This effect was driven by fulfillment of core psychological needs — autonomy, competence, and interpersonal relatedness — related to well-being. As one student put it, "I was productive, but didn’t spend too much time doing work without spending time with friends.” Perhaps these students felt like more active agents in their daily decision-making, as time’s (imagined) scarcity helped to clarify their priorities. Maybe they chose activities at which they felt skilled, while also allowing themselves to socialize with meaningful others. Maybe they were more able to suppress the "shoulds" that so often govern our daily decisions, focusing instead on what makes life rich and rewarding.

It's important to note that all of our participants were freshmen and sophomores in college, so, again, their condensed timelines were purely imaginary. They actually still had a relative abundance of time left — years, in fact. Nevertheless, they were able to adopt this perspective and use it as a catalyst for positive change.

How can you put this research to work? Easy.

Prioritize the things that came to mind when answering the question I posed above: What would you most like to do if you had to move soon? (And we're not talking about stressful or unpleasant things, like putting your house on the market and starting to pack…) Take note of the people you’d most like to spend time with. Identify the restaurants, museums, or natural sites you want to see one more time. These may not actually be the things you normally focus on. Perhaps you're typically too busy. Perhaps you lack the motivation. In the normal hustle-and-bustle of daily life, these may well be subtleties that you fail to notice and appreciate. Nothing will highlight their importance quite like imagining their absence.

Other research shows that, when time truly is coming to an end, emotionally rewarding and meaningful people and places naturally rise to the top of our priority lists. Our new study demonstrates that this mindset can be created far in advance of an actual ending to help us envision our priorities more clearly.