The pursuit of happiness: Buying time

When the late U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas was diagnosed with cancer in 1984, he resigned his Senate seat with these words: “Nobody on his death bed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'” Wise words, yet despite the sentiment, Tsongas remained conflicted about time and money. In 1992, he returned to politics for an unsuccessful presidential run, and two years later tried unsuccessfully to form a third political party. He died of liver failure in 1997, at the age of 56.

Most Americans are similarly torn about time and money. Work gives us a sense of productivity and self-esteem — in addition to paying the bills — but many of us work far more than we really need to in order to get these rewards. And these long workdays inevitably take time away from relationships with friends, family and romantic partners — the very connections that make us happy. Ironically, it often takes an event like cancer to make us rethink our priorities.

Is there an easier way, short of a near-death experience? Psychological scientist Cassie Mogilner thinks so. A professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School, Mogilner had the idea that time and money are fungible resources in the human mind; we think about one at the expense of the other. If that’s the case, she reasoned, perhaps we can simply choose to think about time over money — and by doing so motivate ourselves to live more connected, happier lives. She decided to test this in the laboratory.

She recruited a large national sample of volunteers for an on-line study. They were all given a word game to complete, but different volunteers puzzled over different words. Some had words that triggered thoughts about time — an alarm clock, for instance — while for others the words triggered thoughts of money. Others, the controls, played with neutral words. After this priming exercise, all of the volunteers completed a questionnaire — ostensibly unrelated — in which they rated a variety of life activities, from sex to praying to commuting and working. How likely are you to engage in this activity during the next 24 hours? How happy will it make you?

The idea was to see if simply thinking about time-related words was enough to make people choose more satisfying — but less lucrative — activities. And it was, clearly. As reported recently in the on-line version of the journal Psychological Science, those with time on their mind preferred to hang out with friends and family, while those thinking of money were much more focused on work. They even looked forward to commuting more than the controls, presumably because commuting brought them closer to work, which brought them closer to a paycheck.

Mogilner ran another version of this experiment with low-income volunteers, just to make sure that financial neediness wasn’t confounding her findings. And she got some interesting, mixed results. Even these volunteers — the ones you would most expect to be preoccupied with work and money — were motivated to spend time with friends and family when their thoughts turned to time. But interestingly, priming thoughts of money did not motivate low-income volunteers to work more — probably because they are in constant need of money and thoughts of money are always in the back of their mind.

Mogilner’s findings are especially interesting in light of recent international studies of wealth and happiness. These studies have shown that as wealth in the U.S. has increased, Americans have increased the number of hours they work; and happiness levels have remained basically unchanged. By contrast, Europeans have responded to economic gains by working less — and they’re happier as a result. How much money people have may be less important than how much they think about money. Americans think about money a lot, and their relationships and happiness suffer as a consequence.

Mogilner’s findings add to a growing consensus among psychological scientists that “self talk” can be a powerful tool for controlling our errant thinking. As I describe in my new book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, often all we have to do to side-step destructive decisions and judgments is to be aware of the mind’s perilous proclivities. That awareness of our own thinking creates the possibility of change–sometimes with something as simple as thinking about clocks and calendars.

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