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Time, Not Money, Buys You Happiness. Here’s How to Get More of It.

New research confirms that it’s not promotions, it’s “time affluence” we want.

Photo credit: Cmannphoto/Getty Images
Photo credit: Cmannphoto/Getty Images

James Dobbins, a 40-year-old former research chief at a news magazine in New York City, started burning out seven years into his tenure. It showed up in a series of symptoms that grew in persistence: irritability, insomnia, and feeling trapped in a cycle of apathy and fatigue toward his job. He had all the telltale signs of classic burnout that experts have identified: exhaustion, feelings of inefficacy, and cynicism.

After closely connecting to how he felt on a day-to-day basis, he finally realized what he needed — more time off for his own creative pursuits and quieter pleasures, like reading and solitary travels. “When it came time for my review, I asked for more time off as a last-ditch effort to recover from burnout,” he tells Thrive Global. But HR declined his request, pointing to a firm cap of 20 vacation days per year. They did, however, offer him more money. “I knew more money wasn’t going to solve the problem. I was done. I quit,” he says.

Four years after he made that bold decision, Dobbins has never been happier. He works half the year as a freelance research editor and spends the other half traveling, gardening, and writing and editing two novels-in-progress. “Now, my life is much more in balance with my values and natural inclinations,” he says.

“I love that,” Ashley V. Whillans, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, tells Thrive. “He’s a classic example of why you should value time over money.”

Whillans just published a study in the Harvard Business Review finding that “time affluence” offers greater rewards, including increased happiness, than monetary gains or climbing the corporate ladder. In a study of nearly 100,000 employees from across the globe, Whillans and her team found that people like Dobbins, who willingly forgo extra cash for more time, benefited from increased career satisfaction, social relationships, and a higher happiness quotient.

“I want to be really clear though. If you ask people, they still might say they value money more,” she says, citing a survey she analyzed from Glassdoor, the website that allows employees to anonymously critique and rate their employers. But the portrait she’s unveiling with that robust data set tells an entirely different another story — the real story: “We look at the association between benefits and job satisfaction and we show that people who have these non-cash benefits (ie. paid time off, sick leave, flextime, working from home, etc.) are way happier with their jobs, controlling for things like industry, salary, age, and hours,” she says.

With that in mind, we culled top tips from Whillans to help you become more “time affluent” in big ways and small:

Take all your paid-time off

The suggestion sounds obvious, but according to a report published by the U.S. Travel Association’s Project: Time Off, which tracks how frequently (or infrequently!) employees take time off, in 2018, 52 percent of American employees had unused vacation. Whillans points out that historically, employees feared seeming disposable if they took time off, but research she’s conducted showed that workers who took more days off reported greater life satisfaction.

Get the most out of your commute

Whillans suggests ditching your car for the day and commuting to work in a taxi or via public transportation so you can enjoy a personal pleasure — daydreaming, reading, people watching. Not all companies are amenable to requests like working from home, but if yours is, ask to work from home a day or two a week (which, depending on how far you work from your residence, could save hours of commuting time you can dedicate to things that satiate your soul and imagination).

Buy more time

Not everyone can afford the luxury of hiring a housecleaner or sending laundry to a cleaning service, but even if it’s a bit of a pinch financially, Whillans says a study shows the extra time if affords you can stymie stress and boost happiness.

Reframe how you think of time

Frame your free time — however it manifests, whether as 5 minutes between meetings or changing your commute from driving to taking a train or subway — as a break,” Whillans urges. Savor those small moments. Do something with any free moments you find to inspire your imagination and reaffirm the things that make life worth living.

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