‘Buying Time’ Can Provide a Path to Happiness

Spending money on time-saving services reduces stress and boosts overall happiness, according to new research, but shockingly few of us do it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can significantly reduce stress and boost happiness, says new research, by spending our money to “buy time,” especially when we pay to avoid unpleasant tasks. Social psychologists from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School report that paying someone else to clean your house, mow your lawn, or make your dinner delivers immediate benefits to mood and overall happiness, but that shockingly few of us choose to spend money to save time.

Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at HBS, is co-author of the paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which culled data from large, multi-nation surveys and a two-week targeted experiment in Vancouver.

“We found that people who felt more pressed for time also reported lower life satisfaction, but when people spent money on time-saving purchases, the relationship between time stress and happiness disappeared,” said Whillans. “What that means is that buying time helps us to protect us from the stress in our lives caused by time pressure, the feeling that we don’t have enough minutes in the day to complete our tasks.”

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The effect was clearest in the Canadian experiment, in which 60 working adults were given $40 to spend in two very different ways. One weekend, they were told to spend the extra cash on a material purchase — a gift, basically — for themselves. The next weekend, the same people were instructed to spend the $40 on anything that saved them time, from paying the neighbor’s kid to run errands to taking an Uber instead of the bus.

When participants were called on the same day they made the time-saving purchase, “they felt happier, in a better mood, and lower feelings of time stress than on the day they bought a material purchase,” said Whillans.

The new data adds a twist to previous studies showing that spending money on positive experiences — vacations, movies, restaurants — carries more psychological benefits than just buying “stuff.” Not only is it smart to buy yourself into pleasurable experiences, but you can get the same mood boost by buying yourself out of unenjoyable experiences like mulching or scrubbing toilets.

The biggest surprise to the researchers was how few people thought to spend money on time-saving services. When they asked 98 working adults how they would spend a “windfall” of $40, only two percent named a purchase that would save them time.

But why?

One reason, said Whillans, is that we’re very bad at remembering how much we hate doing certain tasks — weeding the garden, ironing shirts — once the momentary suffering has passed. That makes us less likely to take proactive steps to avoid that overburdened feeling in the future. But another possible culprit is good old fashioned guilt.

“If you feel guilty about getting someone to clean your house for you, then you might get less happiness from outsourcing that task,” said Whillans, “or you might just be less likely to spend your money in that way.”

Thanks a lot, Protestant work ethic.

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The gig economy and help-for-hire websites like TaskRabbit and Fiverr can definitely be a resource for people looking to offload some unpleasant errands, said Whillans. She points to a pilot study at Stanford University where medical school residents and doctors were rewarded with vouchers for time-saving services, which resulted in less work-life stress and greater feelings of workplace flexibility.

Instead of indulging in a favorite treat all the time, Dunn advised in an email, recognize that having a special luxury less often can actually enhance pleasure. And, when it comes to purchases, rather than succumbing to the temptation to consume now and pay later by using credit cards, pay for that much need vacation in advance.

“You get the pain of paying out the way and get to enjoy the pleasure of anticipation,” she wrote. Also, invest in others because helping people often yields more happiness. “In fact,” she wrote, “we've shown that spending as little as $5 to help someone else can provide a significant mood boost.”

So money can buy a bit of happiness after all.

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