British Columbia

Want to be happier? Focus on time, not money, says Harvard researcher

Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, wants to help you lead a better, happier life by teaching you how to find more time. 

Ashley Whillans says research shows people who focus on creating more time have more fulfilling lives

Parents may be more likely to feel "time poor," according to Harvard researcher Ashley Whillans, but she says time poverty also reaches across income levels and other demographics. (Shutterstock)

In a large lecture hall at the University of British Columbia, a few dozen graduate students have gathered in a communal quest for happiness.

It's a sunny Wednesday in May, classes are finished, so it would be fair to say that this is a good turnout for a two-hour workshop. One woman sits slumped over the table in front of her. Others, more alert, are poised with pens at the ready.

The draw is Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor and social psychologist at Harvard Business School. Whillans is here to help them lead better, happier lives by helping them create more time.

Until 2017 Ashley Whillans was a graduate student at UBC. She's now an assistant professor at Harvard. (Evgenia Eliseeva)

"It's a little bit to do with how much time we actually have and a lot to do with how much time we feel like we have," Whillans explained over the phone before her talk.

Whillans says there are a few simple steps people can take everyday to combat "time poverty," which she describes as feeling overwhelmed by the demands of work and life.

Pervasive problem

Whillans studies the ways people negotiate time and money, and how their choices around those topics can make them happier.

Her research shows that about 80 per cent of working adults in the U.S. feel like they suffer from time poverty — which she says affects people regardless of their income, gender or family status.

Researcher Ashley Whillans says even millionaires can feel affected by time poverty — unless they spend their money right. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Whillans does acknowledge that time poverty is most detrimental for those in lower income brackets who might struggle with problems like juggling several jobs to make ends meet. 

The consequences of time poverty go beyond happiness, Whillans says. People often use time poverty as an excuse to not exercise, make healthy meals or spend time with family or friends and thus can contribute to systemic health issues.

Choose time over money

At the top of Whillans's "to-do list" is for people to prioritize time over money.

That means taking a direct flight if it means saving hours at the airport, or paying more to live closer to work and thus spend less time commuting. 

Paying more to live closer to work in order to spend less time commuting is one of the ways people can prioritize time over money, says researcher Ashley Whillans. (The Canadian Press)

Her research shows that people who make these type of choices have more life satisfaction, and feel happier. 

Outsource disliked tasks

Number two on her list is for people to outsource their most disliked tasks.

This tip stems from her time studying under UBC happiness researcher Elizabeth Dunn, who examines how people can spend their money in ways to make them happier. 

Dunn says the beneficial effects of buying time is pretty consistent across the income spectrum, and it doesn't have to cost a lot of money. For example, it could be spending just $10 to have groceries delivered.

"Buying time can mean just using money in any way that improves the way you spend your time," Dunn said.

The key, Dunn says, is to focus on unpleasant tasks — which vary for everyone. Paying more for a prepared meal kit service, for example, won't be beneficial for someone who enjoys cooking. 

Say 'no' more often

Whillans also recommends people take control over their time by saying no to favours and projects more often. 

That includes asking for more time when it's needed — a task she says men are better at than women. 

For those who have trouble saying no, Whillans suggests using an external constraint like not having enough money or energy as an excuse.

Researcher Ashley Whillans says North Americans treat busyness as a status symbol. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Busyness as a status symbol

Whillans has some other items on her "to-do list," like encouraging people to take all their vacation time and spend more time savouring meals instead of choosing them. 

But she also addresses some systemic problems at the core of the issue.

One of these is technology and social media, which can lead people to squander small amounts of time throughout the day.

But Whillans says what's most problematic is that North Americans treat busyness as a status symbol. 

Whillans says this tendency toward busyness and prioritizing money is more prevalent in less egalitarian countries.


Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at


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