One surprising way money can buy happiness, according to scientists


Washington Post, July 24, 2017

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 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, timesaving 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 timesaving 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 timesaving service another weekend (in varying order).

Compared with the days when they bought stuff, most participants reported that their timesaving 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 percent 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.

Read more here.

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