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Time for Happiness

Our search to understand what makes humans happy (or happier) goes back centuries. As does our enduring belief that if we just do the right thing, happiness will follow — that additional happiness will be doled out to us because we earned it, not due to the largess of a benevolent being. “Happiness is not a reward — it is a consequence,” instructs Robert Green Ingersoll, a Civil War-era orator. Many notable others, from Aristotle to the Buddha to Ursula K. LeGuin, agree with this sentiment.

New research takes a fresh look at this topic. Jennifer Aaker and Melanie Rudd at Stanford University, and Cassie Mogilner at the University of Pennsylvania, published “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time,” in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2011. They discuss how happiness is indeed a consequence of the choices people make. So what can people do to increase their happiness? Their answer is surprisingly simple: spend your time wisely. Careful though. Some of the ways people should spend their time are, in fact, surprising.

“We know that people with meaningful social connections are happier than those without them,” said Mogilner. “The more time that individuals spend with their partners, best friends, and close friends, the happier they are. When they spend time with people who they dislike or when they spend time alone, their happiness levels drop. Loneliness is a relatively good predictor of unhappiness.” Further, Mogilner has found that encouraging people to think about time (vs. money, for example) tends to foster those social connections. So thinking about time has a fundamental impact on how people behave.

Why might concentrating on time get us closer to our centuries-long search for happiness? One reason is because time spent doing something, especially when compared to owning something or spending money, is associated with personal meaning and evokes emotionally laden memories.

You might not recall how much money you had in your bank account when you were 20 years old, but most people remember their first kiss. Time also fosters interpersonal connections: the camaraderie that people get from attending a baseball game with friends, for example, would be more conducive to happiness than watching it alone in front of the television.

Drawing from their research and that of others, Aaker, Rudd, and Mogilner extracted five time-spending happiness principles:

Spend time with the right people

Spend time on the right activities

Enjoy experiences without spending time actually doing them

Expand your time

Be aware that happiness changes over time


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