The Value of Time: Understanding and Maximizing Time Affluence

April 27, 2023
  • Private Banking
BBH Senior Wealth Planner Ross Bruch explores “time affluence” – a term that refers to the idea that, like money, time can be saved, spent, and wasted. He addresses wealth’s impact on time affluence, how to cultivate it, and how to avoid “time poverty,” which can lead to a lack of mindfulness and cognitive overload.

Time is a common denominator that every human must adapt to and work with. But just because we all use the same clock and have the same number of hours in the day does not mean we all think about the parameters and constant progression of time similarly. Our perception of time (for example, how fast or slow it appears to move, how much time we’ve wasted or cherished, and how we will elect to use free time) is uniquely personal. Why is that? And what factors contribute to our perception of and beliefs about time?

Here, we explore these questions through the lens of “time affluence” – a term that refers to the idea that, like money, time can be saved, spent, and wasted. Increased time affluence has been associated with greater well-being, while “time poverty” – a term used to describe situations in which individuals have little to no autonomy in the manner in which they spend their time – has been linked to lower well-being, diminished physical health, and reduced productivity.1 We also address wealth’s impact on time affluence and poverty and offer ideas on how to cultivate time affluence in one’s life.

Time Affluence

In the past decade, researchers have uncovered an abundance of information on the benefits of time affluence and the disadvantages of time poverty. Some of these highlights include:

  • Time poverty has been associated with feelings of cognitive overload and pressure.5 This may negatively affect one’s ability to generate flow, which, like mindfulness, is positively correlated with improved well-being.

Modern Conveniences and Time Affluence

There are numerous ways in which humans shape their lives to try to maximize time for either greater productivity or added leisure. Many modern-day resources are not only elements of convenience but are also tools capable of conducting in mere minutes (or even seconds) chores and other obligations that used to take hours to complete. Tasks such as shopping, vacuuming, and paying bills through the mail can now be done through the use of a mobile app, a robot vacuum cleaner, or online bill pay. And not only is the time it now takes to complete many tasks far shorter than it was in the past, but people also don’t have to spend as much time thinking about when and how they want to complete these tasks because many day-to-day responsibilities can be completely automated.

But have these conveniences led to a greater sense of time affluence in the modern world? There is little evidence to support that they have. Since 1960, Americans (as well as citizens of several other developed countries) have spent only slightly less time on paid work, while averaging slightly more time on unpaid work and childcare.6 And although the data also shows a moderate increase in leisure time during the same period, most of those gains occurred prior to 1985 and came in the form of increased television viewing. Time distributions did not fluctuate significantly in the late 1990s or early 2000s despite the broad adoption of numerous potentially time-saving technological developments (such as personal computers and the internet) that were popularized during that period. According to these studies, except for a slight increase in inactive leisure time nearly four decades ago, automation and productivity-driven tools have not drastically altered the way in which many people allocate their time, nor have they increased overall time affluence.

Similarly, people did not significantly change their perception of free time over a similar period. Another time-focused study showed that as of 2010, only 9% of surveyed adults reported having time on their hands “quite often,” whereas 46% of participants said they had free time “now and then,” and the remaining 45% said they “almost never” had free time.7 This data is relatively consistent with survey findings dating back to the 1960s and demonstrates that despite modern conveniences, many Americans have been, and continue to be, time-poor.

A time-focused study showed that as of 2010, only 9% of surveyed adults reported having time on their hands “quite often,” whereas 46% of participants said they had free time “now and then,” and the remaining 45% said they “almost never” had free time. This data is relatively consistent with survey findings dating back to the 1960s and demonstrates that despite modern conveniences, many Americans have been, and continue to be, time-poor.

Why don’t Americans have a greater sense of time affluence? The answer is unclear but likely has many culprits. A few of the possible explanations may include:

  • Humans tend to fill time with added pursuits. When we free up our schedules, we often fill that extra time in the day with new financial and lifestyle aspirations.
  • Although modern society has reduced the amount of time we spend on certain tasks, it has created many chores, obligations, and idle leisure activities that were incomprehensible just a few decades ago (for example, sending emails, binge-watching shows, listening to podcasts, logging in to work from home on nights or weekends).
  • People often do not recognize the time savings that staples of modern convenience offer because a majority of individuals (at least in the U.S.) have access to these same benefits. If nearly everyone is able to use the same mechanisms to speed up tasks, no one feels like they have a time advantage as a result of these tools because, as described by the mimetic theory of desire, humans are more inclined to compare themselves with others than they are to compare themselves with their past experiences.8 Thus, technological advancements that are widely beneficial to society may not produce any perceivable time affluence benefit.

Wealth’s Negative Impact on Time

Financial affluence provides an opportunity to outsource more of life’s daily demands or inconveniences in ways few others can, thereby maximizing the theoretical advantages of “buying time.” However, despite prosperity’s ability to reduce obligations and responsibilities as well as provide greater amounts of autonomy and leisure time, wealthy individuals may be more predisposed to feelings of time poverty than time affluence. Potential reasons for this may include:

Thus, although wealth may contribute to well-being in several ways, based on various research sources it is also clear that wealth is not a solely beneficial contributor to well-being. Instead, in some circumstances, it can act as a double-edged sword.

Maximizing Time Affluence

Based on time-related research, it appears that the psychological benefit of having enough time requires much more than just clearing one’s schedule or being more productive during the 24 hours one has each day; instead, developing time affluence requires striving to eliminate time poverty while simultaneously using time effectively.

There are two equally important components to this equation. The first part, free time, can be generated in a multitude of ways, especially through the use of financial resources. For example, wealth can help provide additional autonomy and freedom of choice in how time is spent. Additionally, wealth is a resource that may be deployed to speed up or eliminate one’s obligations, chores, and unwelcome activities. In theory, this relationship should provide every wealthy individual with an abundance of free time.

However, the second part of the equation – using free time in a meaningful way – is often unrelated to wealth and is typically far more difficult to cultivate. Using one’s time wisely is a highly subjective and individualistic exercise and often requires dedication and focus to its efforts. While it is impossible to predict what specific use of time will bring each individual the most joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction, the vast library of positive psychology research suggests that one’s life is often most benefited by filling it with activities that:

Undoubtedly, each of these pursuits requires motivation and effort – which is precisely the reason free time alone does not build time affluence.

At Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), we enjoy engaging with clients as they consider how to build time affluence to live happier lives. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to our Values-Based Wealth Planning team.

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2 Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2009). Time Affluence as a Path toward Personal Happiness and Ethical Business Practice: Empirical Evidence from Four Studies. Journal of Business Ethics, 84(2), 243–255.
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14 Sharif, M. A., Mogilner, C., & Hershfield, H. E. (2021). Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(4), 933–947.

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