A lot of has been written about how focusing too much on materialistic ambitions, at the expense of relationships and experiences, can leave us miserable and unfulfilled. In a new paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, a team of psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada argue that there’s another important distinction to be made – between how much we prioritise time versus money. Those who favour time tend to be happier, possibly because this frees them to enjoy pleasurable and meaningful activities, although this has yet to be established.
The researchers led by Ashley Whillans first devised a quick and simple way to measure this difference in people. They asked just over 100 students to say whether they prioritised having more time or having more money, and to help them appreciate the distinction the researchers presented them with vignettes of two people – one who prioritises time:
Tina (male names were used for male participants) values her time more than her money. She is willing to sacrifice her money to have more time. For example, Tina would rather work fewer hours and make less money, than work more hours and make more money.
And one who prioritises money:
Maggie values her money more than her time. She is willing to sacrifice her time to have more money. For example, Maggie would rather work more hours and make more money, than work fewer hours and have more time.
The students answered this question twice, three months apart and their two choices were highly consistent, which supports the idea that people’s prioritisation of time versus money is a stable trait.
In several further studies involving thousands more students and adult members of the general public in Canada and the US, Whillans and her colleagues showed that people’s answer to this one simple question correlated with their choices over various fictional scenarios, such as: whether they wanted to apply for a hypothetical higher salary/longer hours job or a lower salary/shorter hours alternative; whether they’d prefer a more expensive apartment with a shorter commute, or a cheaper alternative (to save money) and make a longer commute; and whether they actually chose a smaller cash reward for taking part in the study, versus a larger value reward token toward a time-saving service (such as a cleaner).
What’s more, across the studies, people who said they prioritised time tended to report being happier. This was true based on various ways of measuring happiness and wellbeing, and the association held even after holding constant many other factors, such as people’s salary, education, hours of work and age and gender. The researchers also measured people’s materialism and the association between happiness and favouring time over money remained after taking this into account.
The researchers said that this relationship between prioritising time and being happier was “small but robust” – about half the size of the impact on happiness of things like being married and having more wealth. In an example of exemplary scholarship, the researchers make clear every factor they measured, every participant who was excluded and why, and the recruitment stopping rule for each study (i.e. how it was decided when to stop recruiting more participants). And perhaps most important, all their data is freely accessible via the Open Science initiative.
As so often, it’s worth remembering that this data was only recorded at a single point in the lives of the participants, so it’s not yet been established that having more a time-centric orientation versus money-centric actually causes greater happiness – as the researchers acknowledge, it’s possible that being happier allows people to see the value in saving time to do fun things. As well as longitudinal research (that follows people’s priorities and happiness over time), future studies could also establish how people’s time vs. money priorities change in response to important life events such as having children or retirement (the current data suggest that older people tend to favour time), and whether it’s possible to deliberately change one’s orientation.
“Although causality cannot be inferred,” the researchers concluded, “these data point to the possibility that valuing time over money is a stable preference that may provide one path to greater happiness.”
Whillans, A., Weidman, A., & Dunn, E. (2016). Valuing Time Over Money Is Associated With Greater Happiness Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550615623842
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