Thinking about the monetary value of our time prevents us from being able to enjoy those moments when we’re not working. That’s the implication of new research by Sanford DeVoe and Julian House. Once we think about our time in monetary terms, they say, any time not working becomes lost revenue. This makes us impatient to get back to work and stops us from savouring the moment.
In an initial study, fifty-three students at a Canadian University answered questions about how much they expected to work and earn in their first year after graduating. Crucially, half of them answered a further question about how that would translate into an hourly wage. Next, the students were given ten minutes free time to browse the web. The key finding is that the students who hadn’t thought about their hourly wage were happier after the web browsing than they were before – they’d obviously made the most of the chance to surf the internet. By contrast, the students who’d thought about their post-graduation hourly wage were no happier after the web browsing than they were before. “Their experience of this leisure period lost some of its hedonic value and failed to bring about any improvement in their happiness,” the researchers said.
A second study tested if thinking about the monetary value of time has this adverse effect because it makes us impatient. This time hundreds of participants were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (a site for recruiting people to work on problems at their computers). The participants listened to 86 seconds of “the Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé after answering some work-related questions, which either did or didn’t involve thinking about their hourly pay. After the music, the participants who’d previously worked out their hourly rate for the past year were less happy than other participants. What’s more, this difference in happiness was entirely mediated by their impatience. The participants who’d worked out their hourly rate tended to agree with statements like “I was impatient for the music to end” and to disagree with statements like “I felt the music was a relaxing break”.
If thinking about the monetary value of our time prevents us from savouring the moment, what if we’re compensated for that time? A final study tested this idea. Again, some participants worked out their hourly wage before listening to a short piece of music. However, this time some of them were given a small additional participation fee for the time spent listening to the music. With this payment, the participants who’d thought about their hourly wage were able to appreciate the music just as much as the other participants who hadn’t thought about their hourly pay.
The researchers said these new results show how modern working practices could affect the way we choose to spend our free time and how much we’re able to enjoy it. In particular, with more people in part-time, flexi-time and freelance roles, time more than ever is likely to be perceived as having a monetary value. “Thinking about time in terms of money is poised to affect our ability to smell the proverbial roses,” the researchers concluded.
DeVoe, S., and House, J. (2012). Time, money, and happiness: How does putting a price on time affect our ability to smell the roses? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (2), 466-474 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.11.012
Further reading: Being paid by the hour changes the way we think about time.