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'Buying time' rather than things is associated with greater life satisfaction, study suggests

'Buying time' rather than things
The study’s lead author Ashley Whillans: “People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they’re being lazy, but our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money.”

Money may be able to buy you happiness if you 1) have enough discretionary income and 2) spend it to purchase some free time — such as by paying someone to do cleaning, cooking and other household chores.

That’s the interesting, but by no means definitive, finding of a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Researchers surveyed more than 6,000 people in four developed countries, including the United States, and found that “buying time” — defined as paying others to do chores that you personally dislike — was associated with greater life satisfaction.

“People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they’re being lazy,” said Ashley Whillans, the study’s lead author and a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, in a released statement. “But our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money.”

In a small follow-up experiment, the researchers also found that people expressed higher level of happiness when they spend money on timesaving purchases rather than on material “things.” 

These findings come with all sorts of caveats, of course, but we’ll get to those in a minute.

A ‘time famine’

As background information in the study notes, people living in developed countries — whether it be Germany, Korea or the United States — report greater time scarcity than did people in past generations, including those with higher incomes.

The stress from that lack of time comes with a hefty health-related price tag: Research has linked it to lower well-being, including reduced happiness, increased anxiety and insomnia.

Time stress also plays a critical role in the rising rates of obesity, because when people lack time, they often fail to eat healthful foods or exercise regularly.

“In theory, rising incomes could offer a way out of the ‘time famine’ of modern life, because wealth offers the opportunity to have more free time, such as by paying more to live closer to work,” write Whillans and her colleagues in the study. “However, some evidence suggests that wealthier people spend more time engaging in stressful activities, such as shopping and commuting.”

Study details

To determine whether money could be used to buy time and, thus, happiness, an international team of researchers examined data collected through lengthy questionnaires filled out by almost 6,300 participants in four countries — the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark. The annual household income of the participants ranged from $30,000 to $1 million-plus. 

Some of the participants were recruited online, some from public places, such as train stations and public parks. The study also included a group of 818 Dutch millionaires.

Among the questions on the surveys were ones designed to assess the participants’ personal levels of life satisfaction and time-related stress. Other questions elicited information about how much money, if any, the participants paid others each month to do routine tasks in order to free up their own time.

An analysis of the answers revealed that only 28 percent of the participants across all four countries said they spent money to give themselves more free time each month. The average amount spent monthly: $148.

The analysis also showed that the people who “bought time” reported greater life satisfaction than those who didn’t.

Remarkably, income and wealth did not appear to be a major factor in the study’s findings.  “Despite the potential benefits of buying time, many respondents allocated no discretionary income to buying time, even when they could afford it,” write the researchers. “Just under half of the 818 millionaires that we surveyed spent no money outsourcing disliked tasks.”

Additional data

To make sure that the findings did not just reflect the participants’ level of discretionary income, the researchers broadened the definition of timesaving purchases to include anything that the participants felt freed up their time. They then tested this broader definition with a sample of 1,802 working adults in the U.S. In that sample, 50 percent said they spent money to give themselves more time, with most buying help with cooking, shopping and housecleaning.

And again, even after controlling for several confounding factors, people who spent money tended to be more satisfied with their lives — no matter what their income.

“If anything, within our United States samples, we observed a stronger relationship between buying time and life satisfaction among less-affluent individuals,” the researchers write. 

The researchers also conducted a small field experiment. They instructed 60 Canadian adults to spend $40 on a timesaving purchase on one weekend and then $40 on a material purchase on another weekend. (The order of the weekend purchases was randomly assigned.)

On the evening of each purchase day, the participants were interviewed over the phone to assess their mood and level of time-related stress. The results showed that their mood was higher and their stress was lower when they spent the money on the timesaving purchase rather than on the material one.

Limitations and implications

And now for the caveats. This study was observational, which means it cannot prove a direct cause-and-effect between “buying time” and greater life satisfaction. Although the researchers controlled for a variety of factors, including income, they did not include many other important ones, such as health status, family life, employment and personality. Even in the field experiment, an unidentified event or activity or piece of news may have affected the mood and stress levels of the participants on the day they made their purchases — something that had nothing to do with what they bought.

In addition, the participants self-reported their own estimates on how much money they spend on timesaving purchases. Some may not have been entirely truthful with their answers, especially if they were embarrassed to admit how much they pay for outside help.

And, of course, it goes without saying that few people, at least in the U.S., have enough discretionary income to hire a personal shopper or a housecleaner or even a neighborhood teenager to mow their lawn. And, as the researchers acknowledge, relatively few people at the lowest runs of the income spectrum participated in their questionnaires.

Still, time stress is a real and growing problem — including a health problem — for people of all incomes. And that’s particularly true for women.

“Within many cultures, women may feel obligated to complete household tasks themselves, working a ‘second-shift’ at home, even when they can afford to pay someone to help,” the researchers write.

“Increasing uptake of time-saving services may provide a pathway toward reducing the harmful effects of women’s second shift,” they add.

Let’s just make sure that we help the working poor reduce their time stress as well.

FMI:  You can read the study in full on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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