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By Alice LaPlante, Stanford Business Blog

Our search to understand what makes humans happy (or happier) goes back centuries. As does our enduring belief that if we just do the right thing, happiness will follow — that additional happiness will be doled out to us because we earned it, not due to the largess of a benevolent being. “Happiness is not a reward — it is a consequence,” instructs Robert Green Ingersoll, a Civil War-era orator. Many notable others, from Aristotle to the Buddha to Ursula K. LeGuin, agree with this sentiment.

New research takes a fresh look at this topic. Jennifer Aaker and Melanie Rudd at Stanford University, and Cassie Mogilner at the University of Pennsylvania, published “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time,” in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2011. They discuss how happiness is indeed a consequence of the choices people make. So what can people do to increase their happiness? Their answer is surprisingly simple: Spend your time wisely. Careful though. Some of the ways people should spend their time are, in fact, surprising.

Although happiness is clearly relevant for individuals, businesses should also pay attention. Building a workforce of highly qualified, hard-working, and loyal employees is an essential aspect of staying competitive in today’s global markets. Therefore, being concerned about employee happiness is not just a moral thing to do, but it makes smart business sense as well.

“People often make career choices based on how much money they envision they can make now or in the future. Surprisingly little thought goes into how they will be using their time — whether they can control their time, who they will spend their time with, and what activities they will spend their time on,” said Aaker, General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“We spend most of our time at work. So understanding how we should be spending our time at work is much more important than people think. It has been interesting to observe which companies are doing a good job of creating opportunities for employees to manage their own time. This goes beyond providing opportunities for flexible hours, telecommuting, and independent contractor relationships. Which companies are allowing opportunities for employees to fundamentally design how they spend their time both at work and outside of work — in ways that are creative and innovative? As Millennials enter the workforce, these types of demands will become even more common.”

Over the years, there has been relatively little research on the relationship between the resource of time and happiness. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is another resource — money — that has been investigated much more thoroughly as a potential key to happiness. Yet, very little research corroborates the idea that more money leads to more happiness. Some research suggests that perhaps people just aren’t spending it right. In fact, even the mere mention of money can result in individuals being less likely to engage in behaviors linked to personal happiness, such as helping othersdonating to charity, or socializing with friends and family. After being prompted to think about wealth, individuals work more, and their ability to enjoy small moments becomes significantly compromised.

“We know that people with meaningful social connections are happier than those without them,” Mogilner said. “The more time that individuals spend with their partners, best friends, and close friends, the happier they are. When they spend time with people who they dislike or when they spend time alone, their happiness levels drop. Loneliness is a relatively good predictor of unhappiness.” Further, Mogilner has found that encouraging people to think about time (vs. money, for example) tends to foster those social connections. So thinking about time has a fundamental impact on how people behave.

Why might concentrating on time get us closer to our centuries-long search for happiness? One reason is because time spent doing something, especially when compared to owning something or spending money, is associated with personal meaning and evokes emotionally laden memories.

You might not recall how much money you had in your bank account when you were 20 years old, but most people remember their first kiss. Time also fosters interpersonal connections: The camaraderie that people get from attending a baseball game with friends, for example, would be more conducive to happiness than watching it alone in front of the television.

Drawing from their research and that of others, Aaker, Rudd, and Mogilner extracted five time-spending happiness principles:

Spend time with the right people.

The greatest happiness levels are associated with spending time with people we like. Socially connecting activities — such as hanging out with friends and family — are responsible for the happiest parts of the day. However, work is also an essential element in the time-happiness relationship. Although spending time with bosses and coworkers tends to be associated with some of the lowest degrees of happiness, two of the biggest predictors of people’s general happiness are whether they have a “best friend” at work and whether they like their boss. Therefore, people should try to reframe relationships and workplace goals such that colleagues become friends so that time spent at work becomes happier.

Spend time on the right activities.

Certain activities are energizing, and others make us feel drained and defeated. To increase happiness, people should avoid spending time on the latter activities in favor of the former whenever possible. Of course, the bills have to be paid, the bathroom cleaned, and it’s sometimes a challenge to get through the day. But people need to reflect on how they are spending their time — the extent to which they mindlessly move from activity to activity without considering what they would really prefer to be doing. For instance, when deciding how to spend the next hour, simply asking yourself the question, ‘Will what I do right now become more valuable over time?’ could increase the likelihood that you behave in ways that are more in line with what will really make you happy.

Enjoy experiences without spending time actually doing them. 

Research in the field of neuroscience has shown that the part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure — the mesolimbic dopamine system — can be activated when merely thinking about something pleasurable, such as drinking a favorite brand of beer or driving a favorite type of sports car. In fact, this research shows that people sometimes enjoys anticipating an activity more than actually doing it.

For example, reading guidebooks in advance of a big vacation and anticipating the food you’ll eat and the activities you’ll do while there could actually give you more pleasure than the vacation itself. In short, research suggests that we can be just as well — if not sometimes better — off if we imagine experiences without having them. So to increase happiness, spend plenty of time happily daydreaming.

Expand your time.

Unlike money, time is inherently scarce. No one gets more than 24 hours per day. In fact, there is a bidirectional relationship between time’s scarcity and its value: Not only does having little time make it feel more valuable, but when time is more valuable, it is perceived as more scarce. To increase happiness, it can make sense to focus on the here and now — because thinking about the present moment (vs. the future) has been found to slow down the perceived passage of time. Simply breathing more deeply can have similar effects.

In one study, subjects who were instructed to take long and slow breaths (vs. short and quick ones) for five minutes not only felt there was more time available to get things done, but also perceived their day as longer. And even though feeling time-constrained makes people less likely to take the time to help someone else, doing so actually makes people feel as though they have more spare time and gives them a sense of a more expansive future. Therefore, if you can’t afford to “buy” more discretionary time (e.g., by hiring a maid), focus on the present moment, breathe more slowly, and spend the little time that you have in helpful and meaningful ways.

Be aware that happiness changes over time.

As we age, we experience different levels of happiness and how we experience happiness changes. Recent research found that younger people are more likely to experience happiness as excitement, whereas older individuals are more likely to experience happiness as feeling peaceful. Therefore, you should be aware that basing future decisions on your current perceptions of happiness may not lead to the maximum levels of happiness in the long run.

Finally, although the meaning of happiness may change, it does so in predictable patterns. Therefore, it is possible to anticipate such changes, and you should allow yourself to shift how you spend your time over the course of your life — as the meaning of happiness shifts.

Aaker points out that “the experiences people accumulate over the course of spending their limited time, quite literally makes up each person’s life. So, if you take away anything from this research, it should be that spending time with the people you love doing the things you love is the best road to happiness.”

This article was written by Alice LaPlante and published in the Stanford Graduate School of Business news blog on April 1, 2011.

2 thoughts on “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time”

  1. Loved this blog post. So true and so important in a time where everyone thinks that money is the most important thing when it comes to work.

  2. This is such a different way of perceiving happiness, yet it is right in line with experience.Thank you for putting it clearly .

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