One of the most extraordinary studies I’ve ever seen was done by Harvard University and published in Psychology Today. It followed a thousand students at the university for two years, after asking each of them a simple question: what is more important to you, time or money? Which one do you prioritize more in your daily life?
What was so remarkable about it was that after those two years were up, they found that the answer to that simple question predicted a night-and-day difference in the student’s quality of life. Those that had answered “money” almost universally had less of it, were less happy and fulfilled, had more illnesses, and were generally worse off by any metric you could conceive. The Scientific American article on the study mentioned that it was what’s called a one-factor conclusion, was is extremely rare. In short, this single factor determined nearly every kind of result. The single factor, they concluded, was whether you base your decisions on what you value most, what is most meaningful, what has the greatest purpose in your life, and what you most believe is right.
I remember one Wednesday night in the junior high class at church, as soon as the teacher walked into the room, I knew something was off. Evidently, it was time to give us the sex talk and he had drawn the short straw, but I’ll never forget the analogy he used. He said, “What if we got this month’s Playboy centerfold model to come to our classroom and stand naked in front of us.” Not a difficult thing to imagine for a room full of teenagers, but his point was this: would that, in and of itself, be wrong?
His conclusion, which I agreed with then and now, is that it would not be innately wrong or “sinful.” Right or wrong, I believe, is not about the situation, but what you do with it. If you find yourself in a room with a beautiful woman, for example, you can choose to allow yourself to lust, or not. But just being in the room and seeing the woman is not wrong, clothes or not.
The trouble is that nearly all young men, including my younger self, very much want to choose lust in that situation. We are all born into the world with a natural programming to seek safety and pleasure, and to avoid pain. But once we reach the age at which we can distinguish right from wrong and have the ability to choose between them, we’re supposed to start living according to love instead of that programming—we’re supposed to prioritize that single factor from the Harvard study.
But of course, we won’t want to, at least not at first. What we want to do is follow that basic programming and seek out the easy pleasure. I think this is why the idea of prioritizing has proven so crucial. You may not be able to want the most important things for yourself right away, but you can at least make a decision based on what you know is best for you. You can want to change your desires. You can want not to want the things you want. Though it may not feel like it in the moment, that determination makes a huge difference, even when your actions fail to live up to it.
I firmly believe that if you make this one change and never listen to another word I say, this one thing will dramatically improve the rest of your life. That’s why they call it a one-factor conclusion, after all. It’s why I always emphasize pursuing love in the present moment as best you can. It isn’t so much about your results, and it’s especially not about immediate results. Our bodies, minds, and spirits respond positively to the simple effort of moving in the right direction, however slowly or haltingly. However stuck you may feel, to make a sincere effort is to make progress—and we have that opportunity every moment of every day.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!