How to Spend Our Time and Money to Optimize for Happiness

Optimizing Happiness with Your Time & Money


In short, focus on time over money. You’ll be happier and more satisfied with your life (Hershfield et al., 2016; Whillans et al., 2016). Doing so motivates you to socialize more and work less (Mogilner, 2010). You’ll be more giving and less stingy (Gasiorowska, Zaleskiewicz, & Wygrab, 2012; Vohs, Mead, & Goode, 2006, 2008). 

Fight “time famine” in your short-term, day-to-day life, or else it’ll stress you out.

But that being said, you should still be aware of how limited your overall time in life is. This will encourage you to find greater joy in life’s ordinary pleasures, such as eating a piece of chocolate, basking in a sunny morning, or receiving a text from a friend, and close relationships, and ultimately make you happier (Bhattacharjee & Mogilner, 2014; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999; Cozzolino, Sheldon, Schachtman, & Meyers, 2009; Cozzolino, Staples, Meyers, & Samboceti, 2004; Kurtz, 2008; Mogilner, Aaker, & Kamvar, 2012; Mogilner, Kamvar, & Aaker, 2011).

How should we spend our money (to optimize for happiness)?

That being said, there ARE some ways that you can increase your happiness through the spending of money.

Spend it on others. There are some conditions here. The idea is to feel like your giving is making a difference in the lives of others. So how could you do that? For one, you could do it in person. Buy them the coffee as you sit with them and drink it, that kind of thing. Also, you could focus it on your strongest relationships – family and close friends (Aknin, Sandstrom, Dunn, & Norton, 2011), over acquaintances or strangers. 

Buy experiences, not things. When it comes to spending it on yourself, buying experiences will bring you far more happiness than buying stuff (Gilovich & Kumar, 2015). Experiences are more emotionally acute and socially connecting than stuff (Chan & Mogilner, 2017). Also, they’re more tied to your identity, which will inevitably create some happy memories (Carter & Gilovich, 2012).

Buy time. The final way that spending money can actually increase your happiness is to use money to buy time (Whillans et al., 2017). What can you pay to have someone do that would free up time for you? Maybe the expression should be “money is time!”

How should we spend our time (to optimize for happiness)?

The key to unlocking long-lasting changes in happiness involves spending time on activities that do not require a lot of money, but do provide small frequent boosts in mood (Mochon, Norton, & Ariely, 2008).

  • Do stuff that makes you happy. This may seem obvious, but you should optimize for spending time engaged in activities that elicit a positive vs. negative mood (Krueger, Kahneman, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2009). 
  • This might be active leisure activities, such as exercising or volunteering, over passive forms like watching TV. (More on this in other months.) Or it could mean work. It’s up to you to know which elicits a positive mood! (Lathia et al., 2017; Smeets, Whillans, Bekkers, & Norton, 2017; Richards et al., 2015; Wang et al., 2012). 
  • Cultivate social connection. (Refer back to Tribe month.) Time spent connecting with others tends to be the happiest part of most people’s day (Kahneman et al., 2004; Mogilner, 2010), and experiences that are shared produce greater happiness than those experienced alone (Caprariello & Reis, 2013). 
  • Help others. (Refer back to Give month.) Spending time helping others enhances our mood, reduces the stress associated with feeling time-constrained, and even makes us physically healthier (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008; Gimenez-Nadal & Molina, 2015; Liu & Aaker, 2008; Weinstein & Ryan, 2010; Whillans et al., 2016, cf. Whillans, Dunn, Smeets, Bekkers & Norton, 2017). 
  • Spice it up! Variety truly is the spice of life. It increases excitement and engagement. We don’t mean multi-tasking – multi-tasking undermines productivity and happiness. We’re referring to how you fill your days and your weeks (Etkin & Mogilner, 2016).
  • Savor it. It’s one thing to spend your time on the right stuff. But the extent to which this makes you happier is influenced by how much you’re actually IN that moment (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). But how can you be more in-the-moment? Try one of these: 
    • Make it a ritual. For example, you will savor the chocolate more if you did a little ritual of unwrapping it a specific way first (Vohs, Wang, Gino, & Norton, 2013).
    • Don’t just use it. Create it. It’s called “the IKEA effect” and it’s real! If you take part in making it, you’ll find it more satisfying (Norton, Mochon, & Ariely, 2012).
    • Give it some space. Over time, things you usually enjoy lose their luster. It’s called “hedonic adaptation.” If you step away from something that normally gives you pleasure, you’ll derive greater pleasure from it when you return to it. Put some space between occasions! (Quoidbach & Dunn, 2013)
    • Be aware of how much longer you have. Do you remember the few months of school? In these moments in life, you get more engaged and experience greater happiness. That’s because you’re aware that your time with that thing is running out (Kurtz, 2008). Interestingly, you can even re-create this effect, for example, by pretending it’s your last month living in your city (Layous, Kurtz, Chancellor, & Lyubomirsky, 2017)! Realizing the preciousness of time encourages you  to extract more happiness from even the most mundane activities 
    • (More on this in other months.)  


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