Money can't buy happiness, right? Well, some researchers beg to differ. They say it depends on how you spend it.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that when people spend money on time-saving services such as a house cleaner, lawn care or grocery delivery, it can make them feel a little happier. By comparison, money spent on material purchases — aka things — does not boost positive emotions the way we might expect.
Think of it as a way to buy back what has become for many Americans a scarce resource: free time.
Yet, in a culture where many people are quick to buy the latest model phone, a big-screen TV or a fancy pair of shoes, those same people are often resistant to spending money on time-saving services.
"Contemplating paying somebody else to do something you're perfectly capable of doing yourself may provoke feelings of guilt," says Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and an author of the study.
Dunn and her colleagues had a hunch that if people spent money to hire out some of the unwanted tasks on their to-do list, they might feel more satisfied with their quality of life.
"We hypothesized that people would be happier if they spent money to buy themselves out of the things they don't like doing," she says.
As a test, she and her colleagues designed an experiment: First, they recruited 60 adults under the age of 70 from Vancouver, British Columbia. The researchers gave the volunteers a little cash and asked them to spend it in two different ways, on two consecutive weekends.
"On one weekend we gave them $40 and asked them to spend it in any way that would give them more free time," Dunn explains. Participants in the study chose a variety of services — everything from meal delivery to a cleaning service to help with errands.
Then, on the other weekend, the participants got another $40 to spend on a material purchase. They could choose anything they wanted within that budget. "One person bought polo shirts," Dunn says. "Another participant bought wine that she described as fancy."
After each weekend purchase, the researchers called the participants and asked how they were feeling. The participants reported how much "positive emotion" they'd been experiencing and how much "negative emotion," Dunn explains.
When the study participants spent money on time-saving services, they reported more positive emotion.
"Buying yourself out of [tasks] like mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathroom — these were pretty small, mundane expenditures, and yet we see them making a difference in people's happiness," Dunn says.
But how much happier? A separate part of the study helped to answer this question.
The same researchers surveyed a group of 6,000 people across a wide range of income brackets in the U.S., Canada and Europe. (The median household income for U.S. residents in the survey was $75,000, but the study also included working adults who made about $30,000 per year and some European millionaires.)
Respondents completed survey questions about whether they spent money each month to increase their free time by paying someone else to complete unenjoyable tasks, and if so, how much they spent.
In addition, the respondents were asked to rank their own level of happiness on a 10-point scale of life satisfaction. Think of the scale as a happiness ladder with 10 rungs.
"What we found is that people who spent money to buy time reported being almost one full point higher on our 10-point ladder, compared to people who did not use money to buy time," Dunn explains. People from across the income spectrum benefited from "buying time," she adds.
Moving up one rung on the happiness ladder may not sound like much, but the researchers say they're very excited by their results.
"Moving people up on the ladder of life satisfaction is not an easy thing to do," Dunn says. "So, if altering slightly how people are spending their money could move them up a full rung, it's something we really want to understand and perhaps encourage people to do."
Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA who was not involved in the study, tells NPR he was a little surprised by the results.
He says it's an intriguing possibility to think about time-saving services as a "stress-management tool." But there are still some unanswered questions, he says. For instance, is the boost in positive emotions sustainable, "or is it just an immediate response?" Maidenberg wonders.
The authors are "presenting enough data to justify a more careful look into this," Maidenberg says. "It's exciting."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Have you ever heard the phrase, money can't buy happiness? Of course you have. Well, some researchers beg to differ. A new study shows that if you spend your money to buy more time rather than stuff, you really can be a bit happier. NPR's Allison Aubrey has this report.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: This time of year, it's easy to feel pulled in multiple directions. With the back to school season, we struggle to manage the demands of home and work. Newly married Mark and Colleen Correal told me that sometimes it feels like there just aren't enough hours in the day. He works in IT. She's a lawyer.
COLLEEN CORREAL: I work probably 60-plus hours a week. I can't believe how busy I am, a lot more than I ever expected.
AUBREY: Last year, they bought a house, which they love. But Colleen says cleaning it is a real pain, and Mark says now every weekend, he's got to mow the lawn.
MARK CORREAL: It's just some days I'd just rather not.
AUBREY: The Correals say they'd love more free time. They'd rather spend Saturday afternoons at a ballgame or a concert or just hanging out here.
M. CORREAL: I'd rather have wine with my wife. It's a much more enjoyable experience than sweating and being annoyed with my used lawnmower.
AUBREY: But so far, the Correals say they have not considered hiring a lawn service or a cleaning service.
M. CORREAL: I don't know. I like doing stuff myself. There's, like, a point of pride in that.
C. CORREAL: I truly think it's an American work ethic thing.
M. CORREAL: I think we were both raised very blue collar, so we'd rather do stuff ourselves than pay for someone else to do it.
AUBREY: Sound familiar? Researchers who study people's daily habits and decisions say they hear this all the time. Elizabeth Dunn is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
ELIZABETH DUNN: Contemplating paying somebody else to do something you are perfectly capable of doing yourself may provoke these feelings of guilt.
AUBREY: Even though we live in a culture where many people don't bat an eye at spending money on a new car or a fancy pair of shoes, Dunn and her colleagues had a hunch that if people spent a little less on things and a little more on help with tasks like cleaning or yard work, they might feel more satisfied with their quality of life.
DUNN: We hypothesized that people would be happier if they spent money to buy themselves out of the things they don't like doing.
AUBREY: To test this theory, Dunn and her colleagues decided to do a study in two parts. For the first part, they recruited a bunch of working adults, gave them some cash and asked them to spend it in two different ways.
DUNN: On one weekend, we gave them $40 and asked them to spend it in any way that would give them more free time.
AUBREY: Some people did spend it on a cleaning service. Others had groceries delivered or hired someone to run errands. Then, on the next weekend, the participants got another $40, this time to spend on a material purchase, things like a piece of jewelry or clothing.
DUNN: One person bought polo shirts. Another person bought wine that she described as fancy.
AUBREY: After each weekend purchase, Dunn and her colleagues asked the participants how they were feeling.
DUNN: How much positive emotion they'd been experiencing, how much negative emotion they'd been experiencing as well as rating their levels of time stress.
AUBREY: And what they found is that when people spent money on timesaving services, they reported more positive emotion.
DUNN: Buying yourself out of an unpleasant experience, like mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathroom - these were pretty small, mundane expenditures. And yet, we see them making a measurable difference for people's happiness.
AUBREY: So how much happier are we talking about here? To figure this out, Dunn and her colleagues did the second part of the study. They surveyed about 6,000 people in the U.S., Canada and Europe across the income spectrum. Many were working-age adults with children.
DUNN: The question we asked is this, do you spend money to outsource any tasks that you dislike doing?
AUBREY: And they also asked the participants to rank themselves on a 10-point scale of life satisfaction. Think of it as a happiness ladder with 10 rungs.
DUNN: What we found was that people who spent money to buy time reported being almost 1 full point higher on our 10-point ladder compared to people who did not use money to buy time.
AUBREY: And this held true across all income levels, from people of average means to millionaires. So this raises an interesting question - why are so many of us reluctant to do something that evidence shows can make us feel more satisfied with our lives?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That is NPR's Allison Aubrey. She is in our studios with us.
AUBREY: Hi there, David.
GREENE: I don't want to be a killjoy, but I have some questions.
AUBREY: Yeah, sure.
GREENE: One point on the happiness ladder - is this that big a deal?
AUBREY: Right. You know, hiring a cleaning service won't make a miserable person suddenly blissfully happy. But the researchers who study this stuff say that it is incredibly hard to nudge people at all. You know, many of us have a set point. We all know people who are happy-go-lucky. Then there are people who are a little more gloomy; I like to think of them as the Eeyores of the world.
AUBREY: So you know, I think if something as simple as a $40 purchase has this ability to move the needle, albeit just one wrung temporarily, the researchers say that's an achievement. And that's why I think these findings are being published in a top-tier journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
GREENE: OK. So you spend, say, $40 to buy a little more time. What are people doing with that extra time? Because I imagine happiness has to do with what you actually end up spending the time doing.
AUBREY: You know, the study doesn't answer the question directly. But I should point out that the people in the study were really busy. They had jobs and kids. To me, it makes sense that having a cleaning service might relieve a little bit of the stress.
GREENE: Yeah. And relieving the stress itself makes you happier, regardless of what you end up doing. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks as always. We appreciate it.
AUBREY: Thanks, David.
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