The Balance —

of Time, Meaning and Money


Several studies say that people who value time over money tend to be happier and this seems to also apply to graduates in spite of debt, and independent of socio-economic class. Yet our modern lives show that we can buy back time and the happiness that comes with it. And if both are present how does the concept of “meaning” factor into this?

The Evidence

University of British Columbia researchers asked graduating students how satisfied they felt with their lives over the course of a month. They surveyed the students again a year later. In both surveys, about 62% of them said they valued time more than money, and those people were happier. What’s more, valuing time over money brought double the magnitude of happiness linked to materialism in general and happiness known to accrue from high parental income.

In further research, “People who value time make decisions based on meaning versus money,” says study leader Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “They choose to do things because they want to, not because they have to.”

Although Canadian tuition (and the resulting student debt) isn’t as high as in the United States, the emphasis on time over money does seem to carry over into adulthood and across different countries. A 2016 study of American adults found that they were “happier and more satisfied with life than the people who chose money,” even after accounting for differences in age, income, and the amount of time people spent at work or at leisure.

Another survey from the Pew Research Center asked people to rank various activities based on meaningfulness. The top three? Time with family, friends and time spent outdoors. After that was pets, listening to music, reading, and religion. In eighth place: job or career.

Income Satiation and The $95,000 Threshold

Naturally, it’s too simplistic to conclude we should just drop everything and just “live our best lives.” A lot of us have to put food on the table and sometimes we have to spend money to make money. So how much time and money do we really need?

Well, it differs by the country, but “income satiation” seems to happen between $65,000 and $75,000 for emotional well-being, but for life evaluation (long-term goals as opposed to day-to-day satisfaction), that kicks in at about $95,000. These two thresholds for satisfaction happen later for wealthier regions.

As for time, it’s more complicated. It’s certainly a lot easier to focus on time when we have financial security, but it seems even when we have that, we still feel like we’re short on time and we suffer for it. For North Americans at least, our culture creates a famine of time where the stress of not having enough time to do all the things we want to do is more worse than being out of a job.

To this end, modern conveniences that include the gig economy (as in paying people to do our tasks instead of doing them ourselves) allow us to buy back some of our time — and thus, some of our happiness. In a survey of more than 6,000 people in the United States, Denmark, Canada, and the Netherlands (including 800 millionaires), those who spent the most on time-saving purchases reported higher levels of life satisfaction.

That said, there’s bound to be yet another ceiling here. Does your lifestyle mean you’re constantly converting time to money back into time, and leaking both in the process? How much of your lifestyle is contingent on “paying to play,” much less “paying to win”? For creative types, this is especially worth considering if we find ourselves excessively needing to convert money to time or worse, the inspiration that fuels our work.

The Key Takeaways

  • “People who value time make decisions based on meaning versus money. They choose to do things because they want to, not because they have to.”

  • Humans adapt to a lot of things including happiness, which is why we can actually reach a cap where more money doesn’t equal more happiness.

  • Money can buy happiness when we pay to free up our time, but only if that time gained back is actually free time.

So assuming you’re generally not satisfied with all things considered, Whilans suggests active leisure and just about anything physical versus passive leisure like just watching TV or giving away our time by volunteering. Whether we choose to do that or not, the idea is to change our perception of our time, one that doesn’t have a dollar or utilitarian value on it. Not only does that free us from feeling “starved” for time, but it could also allow us to do highly meaningful work (creative or otherwise) that we might not get hired to do otherwise. The caveat is that we have to plan ahead for how we spend any free time we suddenly happen upon (for fear it gets filled with something else out of compulsion).

To try and put our complex lives in a nutshell: there’s a strong link between our satisfaction and the balance of a triangle includes time and money on the sides supporting meaning at the top. Modern conveniences mean that we have more options to shuffle and “convert” our resources as we need, but unless we get our reasons in order, we’re less likely to find anything resembling happiness in the long run.