Money Can Buy You Happiness – If You Spend It On "Time"

If you employ the kid next door to mow the lawn, you'll probably feel happier. photowind/Shutterstock

We’ve all heard that “money can’t buy you happiness”, but might that be because people use it to buy the wrong things? A new study suggests that, while money can never guarantee happiness, it buys a high probability if it is spent acquiring time rather than possessions.

If you’re lucky enough to have money left over after covering basic needs, you might get someone to do tasks you dislike. Some may also have the option of taking a modest paycut for a shorter working week. We might not know for sure, however, since many people who could afford to do this pass the chance up.

Dr Ashley Whillans of the University of British Columbia undertook a two-part study as part of her PhD to see how such choices affect happiness. Whillans had more than 6,000 people in four countries do surveys about life satisfaction and stress levels. These also asked how much they spent a month to buy their way out of time-consuming chores.

"People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they're being lazy," Whillans said in a statement. "But our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money."

The association between buying time and life satisfaction held up even when Whillans controlled for how much money respondents had, but a study like this can’t prove the relationship is causal. So Whillans did a field experiment as well, giving sixty participants $40 on two weekends, with instructions to spend the money on one weekend on a possession and on hiring someone to do a chore for them on the other, freeing up time.

Reported happiness was greater on the weekend when they bought time, with a notable decrease in end of day stress.

Yet despite much longing talk of work-life balance, many people continue to pass up the opportunity to buy themselves time to do what they love. Only 28 percent of Whillan’s respondents on initial surveys reported buying time; even when she broadened the definition this rose to just 50 percent.

For a century the greater productivity technology enabled was translated into shorter paid working weeks and labor-saving household goods. But in recent decades English-speaking developed nations have instead been working longer hours and reporting more time scarcity.

If you’re thinking Whillans’ name sounds familiar, it’s probably because, prior to acquiring a doctorate in psychology, she had a successful acting career, appearing in Juno and Aliens in America. A previous component of her research showed that giving money to worthy causes, or just to help someone else, can benefit one’s health, at least for people with high blood pressure. Where does she get the time?

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