Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness, but Time Might

Spending time wisely can increase happiness.

Want the magic formula for happiness? Spend your time wisely. That’s the simple takeaway message from a new study that examined the relationship between time and happiness.[1]

Plenty of research has revealed that increased wealth does not necessarily lead to increased happiness. The reasons for this are vast and contradictory; however, it may boil down to one basic idea—it’s not about the money, but how you spend it. In fact, researchers from San Francisco State University have found that money spent on experiences produced a greater sense of happiness than money spent on material objects.[2]

So what does this have to do with time? It’s the difference between having and doing. When we spend time doing things, we develop meaning and create a bank full of happy memories. In contrast, spending money or owning material objects creates none of that meaning and we quickly grow bored with our purchases. But we don’t grow bored of happy memories.

Happiness is heavily associated with personal meaning and social connectedness—two things that money cannot buy, but time can. The researchers found that the way we spend our time is directly proportional to our level of happiness. And it makes sense—at the most basic level, your life is an accumulation of experiences, not things.

After analyzing the data, the researchers developed five principles for maximizing happiness:

  • Spend time with the right people. People are happiest when spending time with friends, family, and significant others rather than bosses and coworkers. For maximum happiness, increase the time you spend with people you love.
  • Spend time on the right activities. Socially connective activities make us happy. Make time for them.
  • Enjoy imagined experiences. Research indicates that the brain cannot distinguish between imagined experiences and real ones. Anticipated pleasure is equally as satisfying as the real thing. For example, planning a vacation is just as pleasurable as taking a vacation. Get lost in daydreams to maximize happiness.
  • Expand your time. You can’t increase the number of hours in the day, but you can increase your own perception of time. Individuals who focus on the present moment tend to feel like they have more time. So, take time for meditation or a few deep breaths to expand your sense of time and subsequently, your happiness.
  • Adapt to changes in happiness. Research indicates that happiness changes over time. What makes you happy now may be different from what makes you happy later. For example, younger people tend to equate excitement with happiness, whereas older people perceive peacefulness as happiness. Allow room for change and growth in order to maximize your sense of happiness.

Time is precious. So is happiness. If you want to be happy, use your time to cultivate meaning and connectedness. Spend time with the people you love, doing the things you love. It’s as simple as that.


[1] Aaker J, Rudd M, Mogilner C. If money doesn’t make you happy, consider time. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2011.

[2] Howell RT, Hill G. The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2009; 4(6): 511-522.