Imagine not having your cell phone handy to send a quick message, find your doctor’s telephone number, make a payment, or check a map on your way to an important meeting. We live in a time of stunning technological wizardry that guarantees more speed and less drudgery in all parts of life. The groundbreaking advances in robotics, AI, biotechnology, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT) promised saved time and a leisure-oriented future. Yet, everybody everywhere seems to be busy.

John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, thought we would be working 30 hours a week by 2030. Our problem would be too much free time. However, this has not turned out to be one of the world’s most pressing problems. In recent decades, incomes have risen in many countries. Yet, material wealth has not translated into time affluence. Instead, most people today report feeling persistently “time poor”—like they have too many things to do and not enough time to do them. This is critical because time poverty is linked to lower well-being, including reduced happiness, increased anxiety, deteriorated physical health, and less productivity.

But, why do people feel so rushed? Individualistic cultures, which put emphasis on achievement over affiliation, help nurture this time-is-money mindset. This creates an urgency to make every moment count. When people see their time in terms of money, they often grow stingy with the former to maximise the latter. In part, this is a conundrum of wealth: though people may be earning more money to spend, they are not simultaneously earning more time to spend it in. In addition, the explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the opportunity cost of leisure (i.e., choosing one thing comes at the expense of choosing another) and contributes to feelings of stress. So if leisureliness was once a badge of honour among the wealthy of the 19th century, in the words of Thorsten Veblen, an American economist at the time, then busyness—and even stressful feelings of time scarcity—has become that badge now. To be pressed for time has become a sign of prosperity, an indicator of social status, and one that most people are inclined to claim. As for all those time saving gadgets, these bits of wizardry chew up far too much of the day, whether you are stuck in traffic, replying to emails or simply scrolling through your newsfeed—sometimes all at once.

People’s welfare is a function of both time and money. However, over the last 70 years economic growth—measured by GDP—has become the sine qua non for economic progress. This is like measuring a building’s energy use and saying that the more electricity, the better the quality of life for the building’s inhabitants. Although electricity powers some of life’s amenities, a higher electric bill, as many people are beginning to find out, does not equate to a better life. More recently, however, this narrow focus on material resources has been challenged. Whatever other moral and aesthetic objections there are to materialism, the evidence is that more of it will not make us happier. There is a body of psychological evidence to show that materialism—defined as placing a high importance on income and material possessions—has, in fact, detrimental effects on happiness.

So, if money does not make us happy, what does? Living in a society where mutual trust and tolerance of diversity are high and rent seeking low, where social and political institutions are perceived as effective and fair, where optimistic and healthy work culture is persistent—all these are strongly associated with “well-being and societal progress”. But perhaps most crucial of all is a high level of social connectedness—with family, friends, neighbours and fellow citizens. In this perspective, policymakers need to consider the role of time affluence. Researchers across academic fields have started to systematically study time use and associated stressors among the working poor, time affluence and greater psychological well-being, welfare costs of the time burdens imposed by social structures i.e., unpaid labour burdens incurred by women processes and tiresome government processes (paperwork and administrative burdens) etc. The general theme is that time poverty may perhaps be as significant as material poverty in determining human welfare.

Alas time, ultimately, is a strange resource—visible only when it passes and often most highly valued when it is gone. Hence, redefining what comprises a successful economic system is a good starting point. In the words of Aristotle “wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”