SOME­TIMES MONEY CAN BUY HAP­PI­NESS

In­vest­ing in ways to free up your time is a wor­thy in­vest­ment, study finds

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - JENNA GAL­LE­GOS

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 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 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 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 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; many cite the same as a rea­son for anx­i­ety, in­som­nia, 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 email. 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.

Peo­ple are no­to­ri­ously bad at mak­ing de­ci­sions that make them hap­pier.

CHOREOGRAPH, GETTY IM­AGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Re­searchers have found that very few of us think to use money to buy more free time.

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