Blog #63 – Spending, time, and well-being
In recent posts, we have revisited the topic of money and happiness. More specifically, we took another look at the widely accepted claim that spending on experiences trumps spending on material things for happiness and well-being, noting that recent research suggests it may not be quite that simple, with individual financial circumstances perhaps playing more of a role in that process than had been heretofore understood.
Another avenue investigated by researchers recently as it relates to money and well-being is the role of time, or, to be more precise, the impact of consciously prioritising time over money or vice versa.
Published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2016, an article written by Ashley V. Whillans, Aaron C. Weidman, and Elizabeth W. Dunn, leaves no room for ambiguity in its title, making the claim that ‘Valuing time over money is associated with greater happiness.’
In this paper, the authors outline a series of studies they conducted with more than 4,500 participants in the United States and Canada, seeking to address the question of how the trade-offs we make between time and money impact on individual happiness.
They set their stall out clearly at the outset, highlighting the everyday choices across time that we all have to make and the consequences that can follow if we fall into a consistent pattern when making these choices: “In a typical day and across a lifetime, people face trade-offs between time and money. These trade-offs may play a role in major decisions such as whether to choose a higher paying career that demands longer hours (vs. making less money and having more free time) and in mundane decisions such as whether to spend a Saturday afternoon cleaning gutters (or paying someone else to do it). Over the years, the decisions that individuals make related to prioritizing time versus money may hold important implications for well-being.”
They also note pre-existing research findings highlighting how thinking about money is linked with valuing productivity and independence, whereas thinking about time is linked with prioritising social connections. Arising from this, they set as their mission the investigation of whether those individuals who default towards prioritising time over money are happier than those who prioritise money over time.
In the first instance, the researchers sought to establish the extent to which participants prioritised one or the other. With a view towards helping participants to picture these trade-offs accurately, all were presented with a short paragraph describing individuals who prioritise one or the other, and were then asked to indicate which description was most true for how they live their lives.
Time priority: “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.”
Money priority: “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.”
Participants were presented with this choice at two points in the process – at the outset and then three months later. The authors reported that answers tended to be consistent, indicating that we will be stable in our preferences vis-à-vis time versus money, whether we favour one or the other.
Having established stable individual differences on this front in the initial study, the authors went on to assess whether the time/money preference is associated with greater happiness.
In these subsequent studies, participants were asked to choose between time or money-oriented options in a range of hypothetical scenarios, e.g., renting a cheaper apartment with a longer commute or a more expensive apartment with a shorter commute, choosing between a post-graduate course that would lead to a higher starting salary and more work hours or one resulting in a lower starting salary and fewer work hours.
The authors reported a consistent trend whereby those who prioritised time over money also tended to score higher on happiness, even when controlling for a range of other variables, such as materialism, income, marital status, age, and gender.
While these findings are interesting, the authors acknowledge more work needs to be done. The data gathered represents a snapshot, a single point in the lives of the participants, so it is difficult to extrapolate too far beyond that. Also relevant here is an issue we have flagged many times in this series – the nature of correlational research. The writers have identified a pattern, but cannot make any claims as to causality, i.e., we can’t be sure of the direction of the relationship. It is tempting to make the claim that prioritising time will make people happier, but we cannot be sure that is the case. It is also possible that people who are happier in the first place are more likely to prioritise time.
That said, the researchers were confident enough in their findings to conclude that their work offered support for the idea that valuing time over money may be a pathway to greater happiness.
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.