New research shows that you can buy happiness if you spend some of that cash on buying yourself some free time
WASHINGTON — Yes, you can buy happiness — especially if the money saves you time.
People who dole out cash to save time on things like housekeeping, delivery services and taxis are a little bit happier than those who don't, new research finds.
Researchers surveyed more than 6,000 people in four countries and also ran an experiment, giving people $40 for two weeks. One week, they had to buy something material, like a shirt. The next week, they paid to save themselves time. People said they felt happier after saving time than buying stuff.
"Money can buy happiness if you spend it right," said University of British Columbia psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn, co-author of a study in Monday's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The right way is paying someone else to do the time-consuming drudge work that you don't like, said study lead author Ashley Whillans at the Harvard Business School. When people do that, they report feeling greater life satisfaction in general and happier that day. But when they buy material objects, it tends not to bring people the happiness they expect, she said.
Lynda Jones, a retired critical care nurse in Indianapolis, has been hiring a housekeeper since she got out of college and said it's the one thing that kept her from burning out in the high stress job. Now she also has a grocery delivery service.
"It's really not that expensive when you think about what my time costs," Jones said Monday. "You can always get money. You can't buy back time."
Earlier research found that using money to help others or have good experiences — like a spa day or travel — also make people happier than buying things, Dunn and Whillans said.
The survey was done in the United States, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands. Except for the U.S., the countries rank near the top of global happiness reports. In general, buying time increases Americans happiness about 0.77 on a 10-point scale, with similar increases in the other countries, Dunn said. That may not seem like much but it is statistically significant, Whillans said.
Income doesn't matter. Rich or poor, spending money to save time seems to make people happier, Whillans said. And if anything, the data suggested that people with less money were able to get a bigger happiness boost from time-saving purchases than those with more, she said.
Yet, only 28 percent of the people surveyed spent money to save time, an average of $148 per month.
In the $40 experiment, the researchers picked 60 people at a Canadian science museum. When the people spent the money on things, their average happiness score was 3.7 on a five-point scale. But when they spent it to pay a neighbor's kids to do yardwork or get lunch delivered or take a taxi rather than a bus, their score averaged 4, a small but statistically significant difference, said Dunn , co-author of the book, "Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending."
Not only is the phrase "money can't buy happiness" wrong but so is "time is money," Dunn said. Earlier studies show people are less likely to volunteer their time or help the environment when they think of time as money, she said.
Outside researchers in happiness praised the research.
"Research shows that people in rich nations are more stressed than people in poor ones, which at first does not seem to make sense. But part of the stress is this time pressure — too much to do and one cannot get everything done," said happiness researcher Edward Diener at the University of Illinois. "So buying time through purchases makes a lot of sense."
Whillans put her findings to the test when she moved from Vancouver to the Boston area. She paid for someone to get rid of all of the boxes from her new house and hired housekeeping and grocery delivery services — a change from graduate student life.
"I was surprised," Whillans said. "Wow, this really does feel great."
Similarly, Dunn had been fighting with her husband about getting a housekeeper. Now, she said, "I win" and they are getting a housekeeper.
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears and his work can be found here .