[SPOILER ALERT for the movie About Time – highly recommended!]
When I turned on About Time on my flight to Hong Kong, I was expecting a fun romantic comedy with some time travel thrown in. What I didn’t expect was a profound lesson about happiness.
When Tim finds out that the men in his family can time travel, he sets to work fixing his own love life. He can only travel backward in time, so all his bumbles, missed opportunities, and creepy pick-up lines get redone until he finally lands himself a lovely, bookworm girlfriend (Rachel McAdams).
As Tim’s father nears death due to lung cancer – something he can’t go back in time and change, because then he would have different children – he gives Tim some advice: instead of trying to fix major things in your life, make a habit of living each day over again. The second time, drop all the stresses and worries and just savor the good things.
“Savoring” is something we’re taught to do as students of happiness, seeking out the good experiences and taking the time to appreciate and be grateful for them. But it’s not easy: how do you put yourself in the right mindset? What if you don’t feel like savoring?
For Tim, it’s easy to savor because he’s gone through the day before. He’s experienced it through the negative lens, pronounced it a “hard day” or a “bad day,” and seen that focusing on the bad stuff doesn’t make him happy. So the second time, he makes more jokes; he smiles at strangers; he sees beauty around him. After some time, he discovers the final secret of happiness: instead of living days twice, he only lives them once – the positive way.
That’s what all the rest of us are trying to do, albeit without the benefit of a time traveling education. But we can ask ourselves in the moment: will I have a “good day” if I behave or respond this way, if I focus on this worry or that problem? When I climb into bed later, will I regret that I wasted my time? How could I act that would make me happy at the end of the day, not wanting a do-over? When we’re tempted to indulge our frustration or stress, it’s a helpful heuristic.