Why We Strive for Money Over Time — and Why It’s a Mistake

  • Share
  • Read Later

An old cliché says time is money. A newer cliché, from Oliver Stone, says money never sleeps — which is essentially the same assessment as the older one. But why are we pretending there’s a contest here? We like what money can buy, but virtually all the research on what makes people happy shows that time matters more than money — not only in the long term but also in the short term. Now a new study shows that time matters more than money even when you live below the poverty line. (More on Time.com: Don’t Choke: 5 Tips for Performing Under Pressure)

The new paper, which was published by the Association for Psychological Science and written by a young Wharton School instructor, Cassie Mogilner, begins by reminding us that older studies have found a weak relationship between wealth and happiness — so much so that we have a cultural trope in the sad old rich lady.

Then Mogilner notes that although Europe consistently performs worse economically than the U.S., the E.U. consistently performs better in surveys on happiness. (Please insert your best joke here about Europeans drinking too much and working too little.) (More on Time.com: 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives)

As Mogilner writes:

“Work is necessary to pay the bill and contributes to an individual’s sense of productivity and self-esteem, but the number of hours Americans spend working frequently exceeds that required to provide these benefits.”

Money is all about utility: it is survival. But time is about emotional investment. In psychological studies of why people donate to charity, the mere mention of money makes people less likely to help. If you ask people to donate time, they may not do it — but they don’t become more stingy. (More on Time.com: Photos: The Dangers of Printing Money)

Mogilner found that these same findings held among a population of 76 people who met the 2009 definition for poverty set by the federal government. Which is remarkable: if you qualify for the federal definition of poverty, you almost certainly worry about making sure your family can eat every day. But even then, most people time to be more valuable than money.

One flaw in the study is that it may not consider the middle class: if you are very rich or very poor, money may be less valuable than when every bill just balances every month. Money, in that case, can be harmony: a perfect bill-balancing act. Time — well, that’s what weekends are for.

More on Time.com:

Photos: Those Things Money Can Buy

Were You Born This (Un)Happy, or Did You Marry Into It?

How Much Happiness Can Money Buy? About $75,000 Worth