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Prioritizing time over money can increase happiness. This is the conclusion of a number of research studies. For instance, a 2017 study found that spending money on time-saving purchases, such as by spending money to outsource disliked tasks like cooking, shopping, and house cleaning, was associated with greater life satisfaction. An experimental study showed causal evidence for this link. In this study, working adults reported greater end-of-day happiness after spending $40 on a time-saving purchase than after spending $40 on a material purchase for themselves. These findings suggest that prioritizing time over money can shape immediate daily consumer choices and subsequent happiness.
However, this research cannot answer the question of whether valuing time over money can have long-term consequences for happiness such as by shaping major decisions — like what careers people choose. To address this question, together with professor of psychology Elizabeth Dunn, we recruited around 1,200 graduating university students and explored their time and money orientation. We found that students who valued time more than money were happier one to two years after graduation.
Why? A year after college, students who assigned more value to time versus money chose more intrinsically rewarding activities than those who prioritized money over time.
Maybe these results simply show that students who prioritized time over money and who chose more intrinsically rewarding activities were less materialistic and enjoyed higher socioeconomic status. To explore this, we asked students to complete a materialism scale and to report their family’s socioeconomic status. We found that when we held these two factors constant, students who valued time more than money still chose more intrinsically rewarding activities and were happier a year after graduation. We also considered students’ level of happiness before graduation and found that students who prioritized time over money were still happier after graduation than those who prioritized money over time.
Our results do not suggest that valuing time more than money is the right thing to do. In some cases, money is positively associated with happiness. Some research shows that people who live in countries with higher GDP per capita are happier than those who live in countries with lower GDP per capita. Our research does show that how much value people assign to time and money shapes their level of happiness: Unlike the students who assigned more value to money than to time, those who were time-oriented chose more intrinsically rewarding activities and, as a result, were happier a year after graduation. Indeed, the choice of more intrinsically motivated activities may be the reason why valuing time over money brings greater happiness.
Decisions that involve time and money are present each day. Sometimes we cannot choose how much value we give to time vs money: we need to work more hours at the expense of less free time to pay the rent. However, when we have the luxury of choosing which of these resources to prioritize, valuing time over money is likely to yield greater happiness.
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