Allocating money to buy ourselves free time by hiring someone else to take up a portion of our chores can make us feel happier, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, teamed up with colleagues from the Harvard Business School in Boston, MA, to try to answer the question, “Can money buy us happiness?”
Dr. Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and her colleagues found that money does buy happiness when it is invested in time-saving expenses, such as hiring a cleaner or a nanny.
The results of the study were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
According to studies from across the globe, researchers note that in countries where personal income is on the rise, free time has become something of a luxury. Lack of free time is reportedly responsible for a decreased sense of well-being, susceptibility to anxiety, and insomnia.
With this in mind, Dr. Whillans and her colleagues set out to test whether or not spending money to acquire more time – by hiring someone to help with household duties and any unpleasant chores, for example – could positively impact people’s lives.
They initially analyzed data sourced from 4,469 respondents from Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States.
In the U.S., they reviewed information from 366 freelancers who sourced their work using a major online platform, as well as 1,260 regular working U.S. adults, who were representative of the general population.
In Denmark, the data came from 467 representative workers, and in Canada, they were collected from a similar population sample of 326 respondents. From the Netherlands, they evaluated 1,232 nationally representative workers, as well as a population of 818 millionaires.
All the respondents at this stage had to provide information about any money they spent on a regular basis to hire helpers and free up time for themselves.
The researchers found that more than 28 percent of the participants invested money in time-saving expenses each month. These respondents also reported feeling happier and more satisfied with their lives.
What surprised Dr. Whillans and her colleagues was that the same degree of satisfaction was felt by people who invested in domestic help regardless of their personal income.
“The benefits of buying time aren’t just for wealthy people. We thought the effects might only hold up for people with quite a bit of disposable income, but to our surprise, we found the same effects across the income spectrum,” says senior author Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, from the University of British Columbia.
Dr. Whillans and her team sought to consolidate their results by recruiting a further 1,802 U.S. participants, to whom they rephrased their initial questions so that “time-saving investments” would be defined less restrictively. Their initial findings still held.
Finally, the researchers also decided to conduct a field experiment, in which 60 working adults from Canada were randomly allocated $40 for two consecutive weekends. They were then asked to spend this money first on time-saving investments, and then on a material purchase.
It was found that the participants felt happier at the weekend when they had invested the money on help with chores, which allowed them to have more free time.
However, the researchers were in for another surprise when they noticed that relatively few people, even counting those with significant expendable incomes, chose to spend their money on time-freeing purchases.
Out of the 818 Dutch millionaires that they surveyed, a little less than half declared that they never invested in purchases that allowed them to avoid unpleasant and time-consuming chores.
When they asked a further sample of 98 working adults how they would spend an expendable $40, only 2 percent of them reported that they would invest in free time.
Dr. Whillans suggests that we should try thinking about our investments differently, and buy ourselves more time when we can.
“Lots of research has shown that people benefit from buying their way into pleasant experiences, but our research suggests people should also consider buying their way out of unpleasant experiences.”
Dr. Elizabeth Dunn