HAL E. HERSHFIELD and CASSIE MOGILNER HOLMES
Sept. 14, 2021
Given the choice between more time or more money, which would you pick? For a beach vacation, you might pay more for a direct flight to gain a couple of extra hours getting sand between your toes. On the other hand, you might take a better-paying job that requires late nights at the office.
One of us, Professor Hershfield, recently faced such a choice. He was invited to teach a weekend seminar out of state. But he had a baby girl at home, born 12 weeks earlier. The pay would offset the costs of child care, but the job would require two days of not oohing, aahing and bonding with the baby.
The value of the money was easy to quantify. But it was harder to put a value on the amount of time that would be lost with the family. He determined that there were only 222 weekends left before the baby would start kindergarten, when quality family hours would give way to car pools to friends’ houses.
Which would lead to greater happiness — the money or the time?
For a research project, we put this question to more than 4,000 people of different ages, income levels, occupations and marital and parental status. In a paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which we wrote with our student Uri Barnea, we found that most people valued money more than time. Sixty-four percent of the 4,415 people we asked in five surveys chose money.
Is money the right choice? We had also asked our survey respondents to report their level of happiness and life satisfaction. We found that the people who chose time were on average statistically happier and more satisfied with life than the people who chose money.
So money may turn out to be the wrong choice.
But maybe this result simply shows that the people who chose money are more financially constrained and therefore less happy. To check this, we also asked respondents to report their annual household income along with the number of hours they work each week (to measure how much time they have).
We found that even when we held constant the amount of leisure time and money respondents had (as well as their age, gender, marital status, parental status and the extent to which they valued material possessions), the people who chose time over money were still happier. So if we were to take two people who were otherwise the same, the one who chose time over money would be happier than the one who chose money over time.
Our research isn’t claiming that having more of either resource is better or worse for happiness. Other research examines the relationship between wealth and happiness and suggests, for example, that more income is positively related to happiness up to a certain point ($75,000, in the United States) and that life satisfaction continues to increase with income beyond that point.
But our research does show that the value individuals place on these resources relative to each other is predictive of happiness.
Why? The people in our studies who chose time over money thought about the resources differently and had different intentions for how they would spend the time or money gained. Unlike those who chose money, who were more likely to be fixated on not having enough, people who chose time focused more on how they would spend it, planning to “spend” on wants rather than needs (e.g., cultivating a hobby versus completing chores at home) and on other people rather than themselves — two expenditures that have previously been linked to elevated levels of happiness.
If, when answering our opening question, you chose money, don’t worry. We have presented this choice as a reflection of a stable preference, but there is room for change. When we asked a group of our respondents to make this choice again a year later, some (25 percent) changed their mind. Moreover, when we conducted an experiment in which we asked people to focus on the value of time (by listing reasons they would want more time), they subsequently felt happier than the people whom we had instructed to focus on the value of money (by listing the reasons they would want more money).
In our pursuit of happiness, we are constantly faced with decisions both big and small that force us to pit time against money. Of course, sometimes it’s not a choice at all: We must earn that extra pay to make ends meet. But when it is a choice, the likelihood of choosing more time over more money — despite the widespread tendency to do the opposite — is a good sign you’ll enjoy the happiness you seek.
So, did Professor Hershfield take the trip and earn extra money toward child care or stay home to have more time with his baby? He had the benefit of our research, and he chose to stay home.
Hal E. Hershfield is an assistant professor and Cassie Mogilner Holmes an associate professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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