Column: Buy time, not stuff, for more happiness

CHICAGO (Reuters) - For greater happiness in 2018, take a tip from a happiness researcher: Buy time instead of more stuff.

A couple walk with Hermes shopping bags as they leave a Hermes store in Paris, France, March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

Hiring a baby nurse for a couple of nights bought psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn quality time with her husband when they were new parents, validating results from her happiness studies at University of British Columbia.

“It was very expensive, but well worth it,” said Dunn, who co-authored “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.”

The world suffers from a “time famine,” sociologists say, as people reluctantly take on unpleasant tasks even though research shows time pressures can lead to anxiety, obesity and various ailments.

Spending to free up time brings more happiness than cramming something new into the closet, Dunn found in her recent study, “Buying Time Promotes Happiness.” Yet only 28 percent of people do it, regardless of income or country.

Perhaps hiring a housecleaner or someone to shovel snow from the driveway would make you happier. Taking a cab or a ride sharing service, rather than a bus, could change the course of a pressure-packed the day.

Dunn’s wish was simply relief from sleeplessness. “I have an intense job, a child and a marriage and I’d like to remain in all of them,” she said.

Tasks that weigh on happiness vary by individual, but there are some common gripes. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s research has found the morning commute the most unpleasant part of the day for many.


About 6,000 people in the United States, Canada, Denmark and Netherlands were surveyed by Dunn and Harvard Assistant Business Professor Ashley Whillans for “Buying Time Promotes Happiness.” Few were paying someone else to complete unenjoyable daily tasks, they found.

Each participant in Vancouver, Canada was given $40 on different days with spending instructions. When they could buy any physical item, purchases ranged from shirts to wine. On a day they had to pay for a task, the money covered housecleaning to paying someone to make a bean dip for a friend’s party.

At the end of each day, individuals were clear about how they felt, said Whillans. The average happiness score for those who bought material items was 3.7. But the average rose to 4 when people saved themselves time.

Now Dunn’s research has shifted focus to why people do not spend on time savers.

One roadblock is guilt about handing off responsibility, even when paying someone else to do the job. Also, advance planning is needed to hire someone to clean house or deliver groceries. When it gets too late, many people simply end up doing the job themselves, said Dunn.

People also give little thought to how they spend their money. Dunn has found that regardless of income, giving to charity or spending on an experience brings more joy than buying a material item.

The lesson: pleasure from material purchases tends to be short-lived, while memories from experiences and reduced anxiety from time constraints lasts longer.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Richard Chang