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Use your money to buy happier time

By Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Special to CNN
updated 7:32 AM EDT, Mon May 20, 2013
Unhappy time -- motorists are tied up commuting in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Unhappy time -- motorists are tied up commuting in Jakarta, Indonesia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • People assume earning money now will let them have opportunities to enjoy life later
  • Authors say people often seek more money than they need
  • It's a smart use of money to "buy" more leisure time, minimize commuting
  • Authors: Buying a luxury car and other high-end products may not increase happiness

Editor's note: Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton are co-authors of "Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending" (Simon & Schuster) and professors at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, respectively.

(CNN) -- The logic is so simple: If I work hard now, the money I earn will give me the opportunity to do all the things that make me happy later.

What's the catch? It turns out that when we get into the habit of working and earning, it can be hard to stop. Instead of using our time to get as much money as possible, new research suggests that we'd be better off using our money to buy happier time.

Remarkably, wealthy people -- despite having access to everything money can buy -- end up spending at least as much time as the rest of us on pursuits they don't enjoy. Like commuting. And, of course, working too much.

Elizabeth Dunn
Elizabeth Dunn
Michael Norton
Michael Norton

Researchers have had no difficulty luring people into the trap of overworking and underenjoying. People in a recent study were told that their only goal in the study was to maximize their happiness. They could engage in "leisure" by listening to pleasant music or "work" by pushing a button to trigger an annoying noise.

For every 10 pushes of the button, they were paid with a Hershey's Kiss. For five minutes, they could press the button as much as they wanted, and earn unlimited Kisses. They weren't allowed to eat any chocolates during this part of the study, but afterward. they got five more minutes to gorge on their earnings, with just one rule: They weren't allowed to take any leftover treats home.

This simple study captures the predicament of modern life. With enough talent and hard work, we can earn more and more money, but we never get more than 24 hours in a day to enjoy the fruits (or chocolates) of our labor.

The researchers discovered that most people worked really hard to earn chocolates in the first five minutes -- so hard that they couldn't possibly finish all of them in the second five minutes. This is the curse of work for all of us. We get so caught up earning money that we forget to leave ourselves time to enjoy it.

Michael Norton: How to buy happiness

The researchers solved this problem for one group of participants by putting a cap on the number of Kisses they could earn. What happened? Capping their earning potential actually increased their happiness.

Stepping outside of the laboratory and re-entering the real world, most people probably wouldn't volunteer to be in a "capped-income" group. Still, most of us could benefit by thinking more carefully about the tradeoffs we make between time and money.

Our research suggests that people would benefit from asking themselves a basic question before reaching for their wallets: How will this purchase affect my time? If your child keeps asking for a pet, you could pay $50 for a goldfish, tank and a year's supply of fish food, or commit thousands of dollars to a golden retriever.

Compared with a goldfish, caring for a dog comes with a big time burden and big price tag. But what many people fail to consider is that the dog might transform the quality of their time. Having a dog commits us to going on daily walks and chatting with other dog owners at the park. Research shows that exercising and talking to others are among the very happiest ways to use our time. In this case, dog beats fish.

Some forms of socializing are better than others.

Our research on online daters shows that they spend five hours per week searching through profiles and another seven hours writing and responding to e-mails, all for a payoff of less than two hours of real-life face-to-face interaction.

Many online dating services are cheap or even free -- a seemingly good deal. But while other companies may cost more, they can lower these negative time costs of meeting new people.

A number of new companies charge single people to bring them together for activities ranging from wine tasting to hot air ballooning. There's no guarantee you'll meet your soul mate, but paying more for your dating service at least guarantees you'll enjoy your time -- getting tipsy, or high.

Don't have the time or the money for a balloon ride?

If you're like most Americans, your car may be to blame. On average, Americans spend two hours a day working just to afford their cars. Commuting ranks among the unhappiest activities in a typical day. When researchers in Germany did the math, they found that the average worker would need their income to go up by a third just to offset the happiness cost of tacking on a 20-minute commute.

It may seem reasonable to solve the commuting problem by investing in a nicer car. Wrong. Sinking more money into a car is a bad deal for happiness.

Although people expect to enjoy driving a BMW more than a Ford Escort, research shows that drivers get no more pleasure from commuting in an expensive car than a cheap one. As a result, Americans spend two hours of each day working just to afford cars that do little to improve their happiness.

Even if it means taking a pay cut, many people would benefit from living closer to work -- or closer to public transit -- and getting rid of their cars altogether. In one survey, New Jersey commuters reported feeling considerably less stressed after commuting to work in New York City by train than by car.

Focusing on how money can improve our time, rather than on how money can swell our coffers, offers the possibility of much more happiness.

Of course, maintaining this focus can be challenging in the face of new products that dazzle us with appealing features. The $350 Harmony Ultimate remote control, for example, allows you to operate your TV and 14 other devices with a full-color touchscreen, promising to give you "all the control you deserve."

It might be better, though, to reconsider how much time you spend with your TV in the first place. (According to the data, TV watching is a clear happiness drain). Instead of taking control of your home entertainment system, take control of the tradeoff you're making between money and time -- even if it means passing up some chocolate.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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