Valuing Time Over Money Predicts Happiness After a Major Life Transition: A Preregistered Longitudinal Study of Graduating Students | Science Advances


How does prioritizing time or money shape major life decisions and subsequent well-being? In a preregistered longitudinal study of approximately 1000 graduating university students, respondents who valued time over money chose more intrinsically rewarding activities and were happier 1 year after graduation. These results remained significant controlling for baseline happiness and potential confounds, such as materialism and socioeconomic status, and when using alternative model specifications. These findings extend previous research by showing that the tendency to value time over money is predictive not only of daily consumer choices but also of major life decisions. In addition, this research uncovers a previously unidentified mechanism—the pursuit of intrinsically motivated activities—that underlies the previously observed association between valuing time and happiness. This work sheds new light on whether, when, and how valuing time shapes happiness.

Many North Americans feel increasingly pressed for time (1) and report worrying about not having enough money (2). In representative surveys, a large proportion of Americans (41%) report that they do not have enough time to do all the things that they want to do. A large proportion of respondents also report that unexpected expenses are a primary source of worry (43%) (2). Although people desire to have more time and money, there are few opportunities to gain both. Instead, people are often forced to make trade-offs between these valuable resources. For example, people frequently confront difficult decisions such as whether to work more hours and make more money (versus spending more time with their children), to live in a more expensive apartment closer to work (versus spending more time stuck in traffic each day), or to pay someone else to complete disliked tasks on their behalf (versus completing disliked tasks on their own). Each day and across many years, the decisions people make about having more free time at the expense of having less money may hold critical implications for subjective well-being (SWB).

Although wealth offers the potential for people to spend their time in happier ways, such as by living in a more expensive apartment closer to the office, survey data suggest that wealthier individuals often spend more of their time engaging in activities that are less enjoyable, such as commuting and shopping (3). Relatedly, research suggests that rising incomes are linked to an increased sense of time scarcity. Across diverse cross-cultural contexts such as Europe, Asia, and America, people who earn more money report feeling more pressed for time (4). In a large-scale survey of more than 30,000 working adults living in the United States, respondents were asked to report their income as well as their feelings of time stress over the course of three consecutive years. Specifically, respondents reported how often they felt rushed and how often they felt pressed for time (5). Controlling for individual and job-related characteristics, such as the number of hours worked each year, when respondents’ income increased so too did their feelings of time stress.

Full article is available on Science Advances.