Counting Seconds & Cents: The Psychological Consequences of Time and Money


By Ashley Whillans

My close friends and family always smugly chuckle upon learning that I study the psychology of time and money. I’ll let you in on their amusement. As a graduate student, I am chronically counting my seconds and cents—scrounging time to see friends while managing multiple deadlines, and saving up for my next flight on a slim student stipend. And while I have not yet learned how to stop time or how to grow money on trees, social psychology does offer insight into when time and money may help vs. hinder happiness.

Most people wrongly assume that more money will yield greater happiness. Although this is true to a point, after meeting our basic needs, money does not buy greater happiness. In new research, my colleague Grant Donnelly at the Harvard Business School set to explore the relationship between money and happiness among some of the world’s wealthiest. In a sample of 2026 millionaires, Donnelly found that wealth was not related to well-being. However, respondents predicted requiring a near quadrupling of wealth to obtain a perfect 10 in happiness. These results suggest that even society’s wealthiest incorrectly assume that having more money will lead to greater happiness.

Luckily, it isn’t impossible for money to buy happiness. You just have to know how to spend it. Dr. Lara Aknin’s research finds that spending money on others provides a powerful pathway to well-being. Spending money on others is particularly beneficial for happiness when you can observe the direct impact of your charitable act, when you spend your money on a close friend, and when you use your financial resources to share in a social experience. Aknin also demonstrates that spending money on others increases happiness for individuals around the globe. Rich and poor individuals worldwide—in Canada, Uganda, India and the small rural village of Vanuatu in Fiji—are all happier spending their money on others than spending money on themselves.

If charitable spending increases happiness, why don’t we spend the majority of our income on others? Part of why we fail to spend our money and time helping others, is because we often think about our time as money. Dr. Sanford DeVoe demonstrates that thinking about the economic value of our time can lead us to devalue uncompensated activities and to spend less time volunteering. In my own research, I find that thinking about time as money decreases the likelihood of engaging in everyday environmental behaviors—like recycling—in part because thinking about the value of time can lead us to prioritize activities that result in personal gain. Given that helping others and helping the environment can have positive consequences for individual and societal well-being, thinking about time as money may serve as a barrier for using time in happier ways.

Perhaps then, my family members’ smugness is well founded. The latest social psychology research suggests that people like myself would benefit from spending less effort counting their time and money, and more effort using these valuable resources to benefit others. So, the next time you are accounting for your time and money, research suggests that you should reduce the amount of time spent making money, and increase the time spent helping others, in order to stretch the happiness of every second and cent.

The research discussed in this article was featured at the recent APS symposium “Counting Seconds and Cents: The Psychological Consequences of Time & Money.”

Originally posted on the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s blog.

Ashley Whillans is a graduate student in Social Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She studies the antecedents and consequences of prosocial behavior—focusing on when time and money can help vs. hurt helping. She also consults for charitable organizations to help them more effectively engage with donors. You can reach her at and read more about her here.

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