When It Comes To Happiness, Time Trumps Money, Study Suggests

By Joshua Eibelman
CommonHealth Intern

What do you value more: your money or your time?

A new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia suggests that those who place a greater value on their time, rather than their money, are happier.

Among the study’s 4,600 participants, there was an almost even split between those who prefer money and those who put a higher value on their time.

While the participants' median age ranged from 20-45, older people tended to value time over money, possibly because over the years, their priorities shifted, and they feel greater satisfaction from quality time with friends and family, researchers found.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, looked at what kinds of trade-offs people were willing to make to achieve "happiness." For instance, participants were asked whether they would prefer a higher paying job farther from home or a lower paying job closer to home.

College students surveyed at the University of British Columbia were asked various questions about what fields of study and jobs they'd choose and how they would prioritize time commitments versus potential salaries.

Participants were told that they'd been admitted to two graduate programs and had to decide between a higher starting salary with more more work hours, or a lower salary with fewer hours, the study said.

Those who are willing to make trade-offs in favor of time, the study found, tend to be happier. Interestingly, researchers report, "These findings could not be explained by materialism, material striving, current feelings of time or material affluence, or demographic characteristics such as income or marital status."

Happiness was measured though a number of self-reporting tools and questions about the number of positive emotions people feel in a day, said lead researcher Ashley Whillans, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Whillans likened preferences for either time or money as “personality characteristics."

Whillans hopes her findings lead people to think more about how they can use money to increase the amount of free time they have: Even a small choice about spending more time with family or friends might increase life satisfaction, she said.

Obviously, not everyone has the luxury of making that kind of choice and the time versus money question isn't an option for many families. And of course, Whillans emphasizes the study’s findings are correlational — they do not show that valuing time over money directly leads to increased happiness.

Still, she says, people might benefit from looking at ways to restructure their lives to free up more time — from living closer to work, to flying on direct, quicker flights with fewer stops, to easing up on housework once in a while to hang out with the kids.

"We always think we're going to have more time in the future than we have in the current moment," she said. "And people often overlook the benefit of trying to structure their life in a way that they'll have more time."

She points out other ways to get more satisfaction out of your time like volunteer or charity work. Research by Mike Norton at Harvard Business School (here's his TEDxCambridge Talk on "How to buy happiness") confirms the idea that people who give away their time as volunteers,even if they just help out family and friends, actually feel they have more time, and more joy.

"If you have an inflexible job .. or can't readily give up money in order to have more time, then giving back to the greater community could maximize happiness," Whillans said.

Currently, Whillans’ research group is analyzing data from over 900 millionaires, trying to see whether preference for time over money is associated with increased happiness among the super-rich. It's a problem we should all have.


More from WBUR

Listen Live