August 1, 2017

If your money isn't buying happiness, you might be spending it wrong, research suggests

Daily Briefing

    If you'd like to buy some happiness, you might want to start by spending money on timesaving services for disliked chores, such as grocery shopping or housecleaning—just be careful not to overdo it, according a new study in PNAS.

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    How money can buy happiness

    For the study, researchers surveyed over 6,000 people from Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States, asking them how much money they spend each month to have other people do tasks they found to be unpleasant, such as cleaning or purchasing and delivering groceries. They also asked participants to report their overall level of life satisfaction.

    The researchers found that people who routinely spend money on tasks that saved them time reported higher overall life satisfaction than those who did not—and the difference held regardless of country of origin, number of hours worked per week, marital status, or number of children living at home. The findings also held regardless of the income levels represented in the study, after researchers controlled for disposable income by comparing what participants spent on life experiences, unnecessary purchases, and necessary purchases, such as food.

    To further test the concept of buying time, the researchers recruited a subgroup of 60 adults and gave them $40 to spend on two consecutive weekends. The participants were asked to spend the money on material things for the first weekend and on a timesaving service for the second weekend.

    The researchers found most participants felt that the timesaving services weekend had a greater positive effectand resulted in less time stress than the material spending weekend—and the reported benefits held regardless of how unique, helpful, or fancy the material purchase was.

    However, despite the benefits associated with timesaving services, the researchers found that overall, about 28 percent of the survey respondents said they routinely spent money on such services—averaging about $147.95 per month.

    The researchers also noted that there was a tipping point to the findings. Individuals who spent the most on timesaving services reported decreased overall life satisfaction—a finding the researchers said could be linked to feeling a loss of control over daily life responsibilities, "leading people to infer that they are unable to handle any daily tasks."

    Further, the researchers acknowledged the study did not include many low-income people, "leaving open the supposition that the benefits of buying time would not emerge for individuals struggling to meet their own basic needs."

    Discussion

    Ashley Whillans, the study's lead author and a social psychologist, said people may not spend money on timesaving purchases because time itself is an abstract concept. "People are notoriously bad at making decisions that will make them happier," she said, adding, "We always think we're going to have more time tomorrow than we do right now," so we might be averse to spending money, which is easily measured, on something less defined, such as time.

    According to Whillans, another potential reason people might shy away from spending money on timesaving services is the perceived "status symbol" of being busy. She pointed out that despite widespread burnout, workers often skimp on their own vacation time. She suggested that employers might reduce burnout—and improve the economy—if they offer employees other timesaving benefits, such as toll passes or vouchers for housecleaning services.

    Then again, Whillans acknowledged that buying more time might not curb busyness because employees might fill their extra hours with more work. She said the microwave and washing machine were both invested to save time, but people remain as busy as ever.

    Separately, Sanford DeVoe—a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study—called the researchers' results a "really stunning finding." Like Whillans, DeVoe said people's apparent unwillingness to "spend their money to yield the greatest happiness" might be linked to how abstract the benefits of time are. He pointed out that when you're paying someone to mow your lawn or clean your house, "you know exactly how much money you're losing." In contrast, "the happiness you'll gain is harder to put a value on," he said (Gallegos, "Speaking of Science," Washington Post, 7/24; Khazan, The Atlantic, 7/25).

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