If you were given $40 on the condition that you had to spend it on something that would make you really happy, what would you do with the money? Some people might go shopping, others would treat themselves to dinner or a movie, a few might even donate to a cause. But what about using that $40 to buy yourself more free time?
According to a study published Monday in the journal PNAS, people who buy time by paying someone to complete household tasks are more satisfied with life. And it’s not just wealthy people. Across a range of incomes, careers and countries, time-saving purchases were correlated with less time-related stress and more positive feelings.
Yet the researchers’ surveys showed that very few individuals think to spend money in this way.
Ashley Whillans, a social psychologist and the study’s lead author, says she is “totally obsessed” with people’s decisions of whether to place more value in time or money. She says we weigh the two all the time: “Do I take the toll bridge, which will save me time but cost me money? Where should I live? If I live far from work I’ll save money, but it will take me more time to commute.”
Whillans and her colleagues at Harvard University collaborated with researchers at the University of British Columbia and two institutes in the Netherlands to conduct seven surveys of more than 6,000 respondents in four countries. The surveys asked people whether they regularly pay someone else to complete unpleasant daily tasks and rated their satisfaction with life.
Across all surveys, life satisfaction was typically higher for people who regularly spend money to save time. This was true regardless of household income, hours worked per week, marital status and number of children living at home (though one limitation of the study was that very few people on the extreme low end of the income spectrum were surveyed).
Even after controlling for total disposable income by comparing the amount participants spend on necessary purchases such as groceries, unnecessary purchases and life experiences, working adults in the United States reported higher life satisfaction if they regularly paid to outsource household tasks such as cooking, shopping and general maintenance.
Ryan Howell, a psychologist who was not involved with the study, called this consistency across demographics “robust” and “impressive.” Howell’s research at San Francisco State University also focuses on spending and happiness, and he also has found that the amount of money people have is not as important as how they spend it.
To directly test whether time-saving purchases can boost happiness, the scientists in the latest research recruited 60 working adults in Vancouver and gave them $40 on each of two consecutive weekends. They were told to spend the money on a material purchase one weekend and a time-saving service another weekend (in varying order).
Compared with the days when they bought stuff, most participants reported that their time-saving purchases were accompanied by an increased positive effect, a decreased negative effect and less time stress. And it didn’t matter how exceptional, useful or posh their material purchase was.
Despite this, when researchers asked another group of 98 working adults in Vancouver how they would spend $40, only 2 per cent mentioned buying themselves more time. And in the earlier surveys in the Netherlands, even among millionaires, less than half reported regularly spending money to outsource disliked tasks.
Sanford DeVoe, who was not involved with the study, called this a “really stunning finding.” DeVoe, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, studies the psychological effects of placing a monetary value on time. He was struck by the fact that even people who can clearly afford to don’t outsource excess work. This adds to a growing body of evidence showing that “people don’t spend their money to yield the greatest happiness,” he said.
Most adults feel they are short on time, and many cite the same as a reason for anxiety, insomnia and even obesity. So why are we so reluctant to consider investing in time capital?
“People are notoriously bad at making decisions that will make them happier,” Whillans said. She suspects the abstract nature of time may be to blame. “We always think we’re going to have more time tomorrow than we do right now,” she said, so we’re hesitant to trade money, which is concrete and measurable, for time, which is much more uncertain.
DeVoe agrees. When you pay someone to clean your house or mow your lawn, “you know exactly how much money you’re losing,” he said. “The happiness you’ll gain is harder to put a value on.”
Another potential reason, according to Whillans: “Busyness is perceived as a status symbol.” It’s not uncommon for people to forgo their paid vacation even while burnout is a huge problem, she said. If companies offered workers incentives that saved time, such as toll passes or vouchers for household services, she predicts the economy might improve because burnout would decrease.
On the other hand, buying time might not actually reduce busyness. That spare time could easily be filled by longer work hours or checking emails. Washing machines and microwaves were both invented to save time, and yet they haven’t made people any less busy. And people who spend too much money to outsource tasks could find themselves more stressed if they start feeling incapable of managing their own lives, the researchers noted.
If you look at the many scientific studies on how to buy happiness, you find evidence supporting several other ways. Buying material goods, especially those that match our personality, can satisfy our need for establishing or expressing our identity. Spending money on others “pro-socially” — through charitable giving or to improve relationships with people we care about — fulfils our desire for human connections. And investing in experiences has been repeatedly shown to increase happiness.
Especially beneficial are experiences that help us develop new skills or apply our talents in novel ways and make us feel more confident, Howell said.
There’s no magic answer for how to stretch our dollars to achieve maximum happiness, but for many people, spending money to save time and improve well-being isn’t even on their radar. DeVoe hopes this research will give people a more concrete understanding of the abstract value of investing in free time.
And giving ourselves a bit more time could make us a whole lot happier.