Ashley Whillans is a Harvard Business School professor and behavioral scientist whose research explores the connection between how we spend time to how we experience happiness. Her recent Harvard Business Review series “Time Poor and Unhappy” looks at why we feel so starved for time today when, in fact, we have more discretionary hours than ever before.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Ashley about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Ashley: My colleagues and I have conducted survey and experimental research with nearly 100,000 working adults from around the world. Across studies, we find that the happiest people prioritize time over money. People who are willing to give up money to gain more free time—such as by working fewer hours or paying to outsource disliked tasks—experience more fulfilling social relationships, more satisfying careers, and more joy. Overall, people who prioritize time over money live happier lives. Importantly, the benefits of choosing time over money emerge for the wealthy and less wealthy alike. Even spending as little as $40 to save time can significantly boost happiness and reduce stress. Our research suggests that even small actions—like savoring our meals, engaging in 30 minutes of exercise, or having a 5-minute conversation with a colleague (vs. focusing on work) can significantly shape happiness, more than most of us predict.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Ashley: Over and over, I find that prioritizing time over money increases happiness. Despite this, most people continue striving to make more money. For example, in one survey, only 48 percent of respondents reported that they would rather have more time than more money. Even the majority of people who were most pressed for time—parents with full-time jobs and young children at home—shared this preference for money over time. In another study, the very wealthy (i.e., individuals with over 3 million dollars of liquid wealth sitting in the bank) did not always prioritize time over money either. These data suggest that a key challenge to reducing feelings of time stress and increasing happiness for a broad range of the population is psychological: most people erroneously believe that wealth will make our lives better. Research shows that once people make more than enough to meet their basic needs, additional money does not reliably promote greater happiness. Yet over and over, our choices do not reflect this reality.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Ashley: As a happiness researcher, I should know better than to choose money over time. Yet, admittedly, like most people, I make these trade-offs suboptimally. I worked for an hour during my wedding reception and I can often be found typing on my laptop or taking work meetings in spa locker rooms. However, a recent experience solidified for me the importance of focusing on time over money. Two weeks ago, one of my closest friends from graduate school shared some devastating news: Her 32-year-old, fit, healthy partner was dying. Out of nowhere, her partner was diagnosed with terminal metastatic cancer. He was given three months to live. In her fundraising page my friend wrote, “We thought we had all the time in the world.” Today, my friend and her boyfriend ‘immediately-turned-husband’ are trying to savor every second of their time together before the inevitable. As a 30-year old myself, who has focused most of the last 10 years on my career (often at the expense of my sleep, my health, and my personal relationships), this experience was a wake-up call. None of us know how much time we have left, and we cannot take money with us. I have studied the importance of prioritizing time for years. And now, I have started truly trying to live this priority.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Ashley: Benjamin Franklin wrote “Time is Money.” My personal mantra is a play on this familiar quote: “If Time is Money, Money Can Also Buy Happier Time.”
Gretchen: Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Ashley: The book that changed my life is Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. This book introduced me to the scientific study of well-being. Dan Gilbert argues that we often mispredict what will make us happy. His persuasive arguments and energetic, insightful and witty writing inspired me to become a social scientist. Specifically, this book solidified my interest in conducting research to learn how to successfully nudge all of us to spend our time and money in ways that are most likely to promote happiness.