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Why time-starved people are happier

( <a href="" target="_blank">Erik Fitpatrick/Flickr</a> )

Americans who want more time in their lives are happier than those who want more money, according to new research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Across a range of surveys and experiments involving over 4,400 people, researchers at UCLA and the Wharton School found that nearly two-thirds of respondents said they'd prefer having more money over more time. But the people who opted for more time were happier with their lives.

Researchers have long known that having more money is associated with more happiness and life satisfaction. A famous 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that having more money was associated with better emotional well-being up to an annual income of about $75,000. Subsequent research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that, while additional money bought less happiness above $75,000 on a per-dollar basis, the relationship remained the same even into the uppermost reaches of the income spectrum.

But the UCLA researchers wanted to add time to the equation, and they further wanted to mix things up by looking at what people want, not just what they have. So in a series of experiments they surveyed people — in-person, online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk, and via an online nationally representative opinion poll — to find out whether they wanted more money or more time in their lives.

What people around the world mean when they say they're happy

What they found, across all of their experiments, was remarkably consistent: Across all groups, "we find a consistent relationship between choosing time over money and happiness," they write. Not only that, but the respondents who indicated the strongest preferences for more time were also the most happy — in other words, "the more people preferred time over money, the happier they were."

There's an interesting wrinkle in all of this, though: People who want more time are different in many ways from people who want more money. The time-choosers were, on average, older. They were more likely to have kids, and to be married. They had less discretionary time because they worked more, and they also had a higher average income as a result.

All of which raises an interesting question: People who want more time are happier. But couldn't this simply be because these people already have enough money? In other words, could happiness be less a function of wanting time, and more a function of having money?

I posed this question to UCLA's Hal Hershfield, one of the lead authors on the study. He said that the type of study they did here doesn't allow them to rule out that possibility completely. However, he points out that even when they did control for the amount of money people already have, they saw the same effect: "By statistically controlling for already existing levels of wealth, we show that choosing time over money has a positive effect on happiness over and above wealth," he said in an email.

So, in other words, take a bunch of people making, say, $75,000 a year, and ask them whether they want more time or more money in their lives. Those who say they want more time will be happier, on average, than the ones who want more money.

This, of course, could be a function of $75,000 meaning different things to different people. Person A, who has little in the way of material desires, could get everything they want out of life on a budget of $75,000. But Person B, who wants a mansion and a private jet, would likely be miserable at that level of income. Person A is happier and would probably tell you all they want is more time. Person B is less happy, and would say they want more money.

In the end, it seems fairly safe to say that it's better for your well-being to have money and want time, than it is to have time and want money. Better cash-rich and time-poor than vice-versa, in other words.

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If you're looking to cut your Internet time, here's how to do it, according to science. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)