To Promote Happiness, Choose Time Over Money

If you feel like there are too many things to do today and not enough time to do them, you are not alone. Most Americans feel pressed for time. In a 2016 Pew Survey, 60 percent of working parents “always” felt rushed.

And it isn’t just employed parents who feel chronically short on time. In one survey, 80 percent of working adults—both with and without children—wished that they had more time to spend with their friends and family. Scientists have even coined the term “time famine” to describe the pervasive feeling of being overwhelmed with the demands of work and life.

People who report frequent feelings of time scarcity are less happy and more prone to anxiety and depression than people who report feeling time affluent. Public health researchers have ranked time stress as one of the most important social trends underlying rising rates of obesity.

An obvious reason for rising feelings of time scarcity is that people simply have less free time than in earlier decades. But there is remarkably little evidence for this idea.

Instead, decreasing feelings of time affluence may come from a surprising culprit: rising wealth. As incomes have risen around the world, so too have feelings of time pressure. In countries from Germany to the United States, people with higher incomes are more likely to agree with statements like, “There have not been enough minutes in a day.”

An obvious reason for rising feelings of time scarcity is that people simply have less free time than in earlier decades. But there is remarkably little evidence for this idea.

Why does having more money make us feel more pressed for time? As described in commodity theory, when any resource is perceived as scarce, it is also perceived as valuable (think of water in the desert or men in pilates classes). So, when our time starts to become more financially valuable, we also view our time as being increasingly scarce.

Is there any way out of this hydraulic relationship between financial affluence and time poverty? Although earning more money makes us feel more pressed for time, changing the way we spend that money may provide an escape from the time crunch. With the rise of the gig economy, it is increasingly possible to use money to buy more free time, by paying for everything from housecleaning to grocery delivery to yard work.

To find out whether people who use this strategy are better off, we surveyed more than 6,000 adults in Canada, Denmark, the U.S., and the Netherlands. People who spent money on time-saving purchases reported greater satisfaction with their lives.

We also conducted an experiment with 60 working adults living in Vancouver, Canada. On a summer weekend, we gave them $40 to spend in any way that would save time. Because just getting spending money might be nice, we also gave them $40 to spend on a different weekend, but this time we told them to buy a material thing, like books or clothes.

On average, people were happier after spending $40 on a time-saving purchase than after spending the same amount on a material thing, and the happiness benefits of “buying time” were explained by reductions in feelings of time pressure.

Of course, spending money on time-saving purchases is not the only effective way to navigate trade-offs between time and money. Some people choose to work fewer hours, even if it means making less money, while others pay a premium for a downtown condo that enables them to walk to work.

To study the effects of these trade-offs more broadly, we presented thousands of working adults with a simple question: Are you more like Tina or are you more like Maggie? We told them only this:

Tina 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.

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.

Although our respondents were split down the middle on this question, people who identified with Tina were happier than people who identified with Maggie. So, going beyond just buying time-saving services, people who say they prioritize time over money appear to be better off.

Decreasing feelings of time affluence may come from a surprising culprit: rising wealth.

As people climb the income ladder, it seems like they should have the freedom to prioritize time. Yet in a nationally representative sample of employed Americans, we found that wealthier people were no more likely to prioritize time over money.

In fact, when we asked over 800 Dutch millionaires about their typical monthly spending habits, almost half of them reported not spending any money to buy time. This may help to explain why wealth tends to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, time stress: Even people who can afford to buy themselves out of the time crunch often don’t. In ongoing research, we are exploring the idea of “future time-slack” as a potential barrier for buying time, which is the notion that most people believe that they will have more time in the future than they do in the present.

These low rates might also vary by gender. Women around the world face the obligation to work a “second shift,” completing the vast majority of unpaid work at home. Increasing the uptake of time-saving purchases might therefore also help to mitigate the negative impacts of this second shift.

Money is both a cause and a potential solution for the time famine of modern life. Although having more money is linked to feeling pressed for time, our research shows that this hydraulic relationship is not inevitable. Instead, re-thinking our spending decisions—from the major to the mundane—may help transform wealth into well-being.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Whillans, A. V., Dunn, E. W., Smeets, P., Bekkers, R., & Norton, M. I. (2017). Buying time promotes happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201706541. (Link)
  • Whillans, A. V., Weidman, A. C., & Dunn, E. W. (2016). Valuing time over money is associated with greater happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(3), 213-222. (Link)
  • Dunn, E., & Norton, M. (2013). Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. (Link)