Harvard psychologist: The toxic money mindset that even millionaires have—and how to break out of it

Ben Perry | Twenty20

I've surveyed thousands of adults around the world — from the financially affluent to the middle-class to the poor — about two very simple, universally valuable resources: Time and money.

Unsurprisingly, most people focus too much on working and making money, and not enough on having more time. But shifting your mindset to prioritize time over money can have several benefits.

Studies show that those with a time-centric mindset have:

  • Higher levels of happiness: People gain half as much happiness from valuing time more than money as they would from being married. This boost holds across demographics: It's not explained by how much they make, their educational background, the number of kids they have or their marital status.
  • Better social connections: Focusing on time encourages us to put our social relationships first. Even fleeting social interactions (e.g., chatting with that person you always see on the bus) can play a significant role in reducing time stress and increasing happiness.
  • Healthier relationships: Time-focused people have happier spouses than money-focused people. For example, couples who spend money on time-saving services (e.g., paying for a house cleaner) to have more quality time together derive more happiness from their relationships.
  • Greater job satisfaction: People who value time work the same number of hours as people who value money. Ironically, they also often make more income than those who worship money, because they're more likely to pursue careers they love. In turn, they are less stressed, more productive and creative, and less likely to quit.

The pitfalls of chasing money

Focusing on chasing wealth is a trap, because it leads only to an increased focus on chasing wealth.

Nothing less than our health and happiness depends on reversing the innate notion that time is money.

Research shows that after we make enough money to pay our bills and save for the future, making more does little for our happiness.

If anything, once people start making a lot of money, they begin to think they're doing worse in life, because they become obsessed with comparing themselves to those who are richer.

Even multimillionaires make the mistake of believing that money, and not time, will enrich their lives.

My colleagues surveyed a few thousand of the world's wealthiest people, asking how much they'd need to be "perfectly happy." Seventy-five percent (many of whom had a net worth of $10 million or more) said they'd need "a lot more" ($5 million to $10 million, "at the very least") to be happy.

It doesn't take a PhD in psychology to see how misguided this mindset is.

How to start prioritizing time

Parts of our brain drive us to choose vice over virtue. (Anyone who wants to lose weight will tell you how much they struggle: Sugar is bad but alluring. Exercise is good but hard to instigate.)

However, there are ways to start seeing time as the more critical currency that it is — and the resource that, more than any other, determines our happiness:

  1. Convince yourself that time is at least as important as money.
  2. Remind yourself of your values when faced with critical decisions.
  3. Make deliberate and strategic decisions that allow you to have more time across days, weeks months, and years.

Implementing each of these steps depends on two activities that will become part of your time-affluent life:

  1. Reflection to create self-awareness about what you're doing and why you're doing it. This seems easy: It's only thinking. But as any behavioral scientist can tell you, humans are capable of twisting our thinking into Escherian stairwells to avoid uncomfortable or hard-to-accept truths. Your reflection must be intentional and honest.
  2. Documentation to create a record of your hopes, observations, calculations and plans for time affluence. Plenty of research confirms the efficacy of writing things down, and it's essential here because of the forces conspiring to make you focus on cash.

Nothing less than our health and happiness depends on reversing the innate notion that time is money. It's not. Money is time.

Ashley Whillans is a behavioral scientist and assistant professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School. Her research is centered around how how people navigate trade-offs between time and money. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Ashley is also the author of "Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time & Live a Happier Life."

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