Working ever-longer hours to bring in more cash might make your life more comfortable, but it isn’t going to make you happy. Instead, we should value our time as the precious resource it is. That, says a new study published in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
The study asked participants to answer questions designed to determine which they valued more—time or money. The result, culled from the answers of over 4,600 participants, showed a roughly equal split, leaning slightly towards those who prioritize time over money.
The paper, from researchers at the University of British Columbia led by Ashley Whillans, set out to establish people’s long-term preferences, using students, employed adults, and older folks to "assess people’s stable preferences to prioritize time over money." The research shows that those who value their time experience greater subjective well-being. "Whereas thinking about money leads people to value productivity and independence," says Whillans, "thinking about time leads people to prioritize social connections."
Existing research has focused on the short term effects of prioritizing money over time. The study cites some examples. Whether, for instance, somebody decides to spend their Saturday afternoon cleaning their gutters, or pays somebody else to do it. This new study instead aims to establish people’s general orientation to prioritize either time or money, and compare it with their long-term happiness. The authors call this orientation the Resource Orientation Measure (ROM).
Participants were given surveys with questions that examined their preferences. For instance, one question asked whether the participant would prefer a cheap home with a long commute, or a shorter commute, but a more expensive apartment. Another question compared graduate programs that would lead to a job with long hours but high pay, versus shorter hours with a lower salary. Further questions hinted at the social-connection advantages of having more time. For instance, paying more for coffee in a friendlier café. After questioning, the participants were entered into a lottery and asked to choose "between receiving a $50 cash prize or a $120 voucher for a time-saving service (housecleaning)."
Interestingly, a participant’s income didn’t make a difference to how they valued their time. Age, however, did. Older people are more likely to favor time over money, which may be down to experience helping us to learn what really matters, or just because for older people, time is a more constrained resource. Young people were the most likely to burn their time in exchange for more money. Further research might focus on the extreme ends of the money-making scale (after all, we all have exactly the same amount of time every day), to determine whether the highest earners might benefit the most from a shift towards prioritizing time. Also missing from this initial study are the poor, who have no choice but to value money above almost everything else.
"It would also be interesting to explore whether time–money preferences shift in response to major life changes," says Whillans, "such as after having children, following a traumatic life event, or after retirement." Existing research shows that psychological flexibility is good for our well-being, and the authors think that "flexibly changing one’s time versus money orientations to match the needs of the current situation might result in the greatest psychological rewards."
Measuring how happy people are is tricky, so Whillans’s team is currently conducting a long-term, multi-year follow-up study with 4,000 students. The idea is that a person’s ROM will affect day-to-day decisions, resulting in increased happiness in the long term. For instance, using your time to exercise, or to engage in social activities, could lead to big payoffs, happiness-wise, in future. Being fit and healthy is clearly good for your happiness, and another recent study shows that social networks (real ones, non online ones) are as important as diet and exercise for our long-term health.
So how can we achieve this shift? The obvious answer is to either switch jobs, or to see if you can go part time in your current job. It might be possible to persuade your boss to give you Fridays off, or you could move to Sweden, where a six-hour work day is becoming common.
Whillans some other suggestions, too. You could keep your regular job, but use some of your money to buy back time wasted in other ways, like employing a cleaner for your house. Or you could do volunteer work, which has been proven to make you happier.
But as the study suggests, it’s likely that you are already oriented one way or the other, or maybe you’re stuck in a job that doesn’t offer much flexibility in terms of hours. In that case, you might get choosy about how you use your money. Instead of spending on things, you should spend it on experiences, which lets you use your money to make the most of the time you do have available.