Time is Money? Not if You Want to Be Happy.

“Time is money” – you hear it so often that you may have accepted it as true. For both rich and poor, “time is money” is a semi-official slogan echoing deeply-held values of productivity and hard work. With the acceptance of “time as money” and its values comes a sneaking question: “How much is this moment costing you?”

For better or worse, the phrase seems to have taken on a life of its own.

How Often “Time is Money” Appears in Printed Text

Google Ngram for "Time is Money"

The above graph shows that we’re using “time is money” in print more than ever. This concerns me deeply. Thinking of time as money inevitably leads to the fallacious conclusion that  the only non-wasteful thing to do with time is to spend it making money.

Perhaps it’s the belief that time is money that has led Americans to work more than anyone else in the industrialized world. Even among those who have never heard of “opportunity cost,” the idea behind it is built-in to American culture. To us, taking time off always costs something. There is no virtue in leisure. Time spent merely relaxing, thinking, or watching television is widely viewed as a necessary evil when we just can’t make ourselves do something productive.

Thinking of Time as Money Does Us Harm

More and more, we are finding that thinking of time as money is harmful. A 2011 study by the University of Toronto shows that thinking about time as money dampens our enjoyment of the things we like doing. Study subjects who were subtly encouraged to think of their time browsing the internet enjoyed it far less.  The authors of the study suggest that accepting the proverbial wisdom that time is money may ultimately make us less happy.

There may also be great value in taking leisure time. Scientists are still trying to figure out why our brains seem to go become more active when we’re idle. We’re not entirely sure why, but some theories suggest that the brain, as a muscle, cannot fully exercise if it’s always driven towards a present task. The activity may also better prepare us for mental work that may otherwise be difficult.

Neuroscience theory aside, it’s been fairly well established that those who never work most have poor psychological well-being in comparison with their more leisure counterparts. In one study, those working the most overtime are most likely to have health complaints, feel emotionally exhausted, and report work making their home lives worse even when not working.  An analysis of 21 studies showed poor overall health and well-being among those who work long hours. The list goes on and on.

How Much is YOUR Time Worth?

What is your time worth in dollars? Most will immediately assume that one’s time is worth their effective hourly wage on the job market. Armed with the erroneous and depressing view that each hour of our lives is worth what our given jobs pay, we begin to actually believe that each hour of our lives is worth exactly its weight on the job market.

If we apply this formula consistently, suddenly a rich man’s leisure hour is really worth more than a poor man’s. Furthermore, what is spending one hour with a loved one worth? The answer becomes, “my hourly wage” – the same supposed worth of any hour of any given day.

Unless money is truly all that matters, we need to stop believing that time is money. We must accept that the worth of time cannot be measured in dollars – our happiness depends on it.

Time is Value

Time is not money – time is value.

We Americans – and to some extent the rest of the world – have the value of time completely backwards. We view money as the goal of time, and believe time spent doing nothing but enjoying the moment is wasted on some level. It’s wrong – so wrong. Spending our time on making money is the necessary evil. The goal should be happiness and enjoyment, both in the moment and in the future.

When we stop asking, “what did this precious moment cost me,” and start asking, “how much is this precious moment worth to me,” we suddenly find that not all hours are created equalThe value of a given moment is not determined by one’s employer. If your goal, like mine,  is happiness, then the value of an hour is determined by how much happiness you derive from the experience.

Don’t worry if you don’t work as hard as your culture insists you should. The moment of enjoyment is its own reward.

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