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Psychologists say money can buy happiness—if it’s spent the right way

What’s the key to happiness? Paying someone else to do your chores, according to a recent study.

Across the world, people are complaining about having less time to do what they really want (otherwise known as the “time famine”). Despite the ever-increasing number of so-called “life hacks” that promise ways to squeeze more exercise, books, and productivity in our busy days, the study suggests that people can increase their happiness if they use money to free up time.

Researchers surveyed more than 6,000 adults in the US, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands, and asked them questions about how much money they spent on time-saving purchases each month. Among the participants were 800 millionaires, working class people and people on incomes between the two. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that less than a third of participants spent money to free up time. Those who did reported greater life satisfaction. For American participants, buying time increased happiness by about 0.77 (paywall) on a ten-point scale.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 60 working adults in Canada to spend $40 on a time-freeing purchase. Participants used the money to get lunches delivered to work and cleaning services. The researchers then asked participants to spend $40 on material items, such as clothes or books. The participants reported feeling much happier when they spent money on time-saving services. When participants bought material items, their average happiness score was 3.7 on a five-point scale. But those who bought time averaged a 4 on a five-point scale—a small, but important difference.

“The benefits of buying time held across the income spectrum and seemed to benefit those with less money the most,” says lead researcher Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School. In their initial survey, researchers observed a strong link between buying time and life satisfaction among less affluent individuals in the US. However, Whillans adds that more research needs to be done to better understand why this link was particularly strong with lower-income people.

While spending on time-saving services made people happier, most people chose not to spend their money that way—even those who were high on the income scale? In a third experiment, researchers asked 98 working adults how they’d spend an unexpected windfall of $40. Only 2% said they’d buy a time-saving purchase. “Factors such as guilt, or protestant work ethic might get in the way of encouraging people from spending money in this way,” Whillans explains.

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