I was struck by a recent poll that asked Americans what they would be willing to do to double their monthly income.
Among a representative sample of 1,000 adults, one quarter of respondents said they would be willing to work every day of the year, according to a survey conducted by Capital One Bank.
There’s often a rush to trade time for money, even though a variety of studies have found people who are “time affluent” are happier than those who are materially affluent.
That’s because people with time can spend it having fun with family and friends, exercising, pursuing personal or spiritual growth or volunteering -- all of which have been found to be important contributors to well-being.
The problem is, it’s awfully hard to put a dollar figure on leisure, and so we discount its value -- and mentally overestimate the pleasure we’ll get out of doubling our money.
Some people might imagine they’d use all that extra dough to hit the mall, the spa, the beach, the slopes; to put up their feet in a custom home theater and chill.
In reality, though, people who want to double their money “should think of spending a lot more time working and commuting and a lot less time engaged in passive leisure,” writes psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in a 2008 article published in the journal Science.
The response to the poll on doubling one’s salary may be a classic case of a “focusing illusion,” as psychologists call it. When someone’s attention is focused on a particular type of change, he or she will tend to exaggerate its importance on their quality of life. This cognitive bias then becomes a motivating factor that can skew decision-making.
Kahneman and psychologist David Schkade of the University of California San Diego demonstrated focusing illusion in a study that showed Midwestern college students believed students in California were happier, and California students believed the Midwesterners were less happy -- despite the fact that both groups reported comparable well-being.
The easily observed and distinctive difference in weather was given more weight in the overall judgment of well-being than it actually had in reality.
In a separate study, Kahneman, Schkade and three colleagues asked a sample of working women to estimate the percentage of the time that they were in a bad mood in the preceding day.
Respondents were also asked to estimate the percentage of time people with pairs of various life circumstances, such as high- and low-income, typically spend in a bad mood. Respondents’ predictions were compared to the actual reports of mood provided by participants in the survey with the relevant circumstances.
Consistent with the focusing illusion, predictions of grumpiness among low-income people were grossly exaggerated.
The average respondent anticipated that people with income below $20,000 per year would spend 58 percent of their time in a bad mood, compared with 26 percent for those with income above $100,000 per year; the actual percentages were 32 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
In the case of the what-would-you-do-to-double-your-dough poll, people were asked to focus on having twice as much money; not on what it would mean to go into the workplace day after day without a break, and how that might affect everything else in their lives.
Time and money are both resources we allocate to ourselves, but money is far easier to measure. Often we’re so busy making a living that we don’t consciously think about how we attend to our values in our daily experience.
We happily exchange our time for something that may not bring us joy, and gives us less time to experience joy.
In his book “Happier,” author and Harvard instructor Tal Ben-Shahar writes: “Time affluence is the feeling that one has sufficient time to pursue activities that are personally meaningful, to reflect, to engage in leisure.
Time poverty is the feeling that one is constantly stressed, rushed, overworked, and behind. All we have to do is look around us -- and often within ourselves -- to realize the pervasiveness of time poverty in our culture.”
One way to make sound decisions about what to do with our time is to make a global evaluation of happiness -- to list the activities and people and situations that create well-being -- and think about a work life that facilitates that.
(If wholesale change isn’t possible, can a job be tweaked so that the tasks, people and environment provide higher well-being?)
At the same time, we also have to identify what we value most, because long-term goals, such as saving for college or retirement, often demand short-term sacrifice, which isn’t much fun.
It’s best to automated those sacrifices with monthly contributions, take that money out of the picture, and then figure out what choices you’ll make about how to spend the rest on needs and wants.
That kind of thinking is required before we get fooled by a focusing illusion, and jump into a higher-paying gig that devours our time.
What part of your life -- if any -- would you give up to double your salary?