Time, not things: this is how money really can buy you happiness

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Anna Brech
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Time and time again, we’re told that experiences rather than material objects bring us happiness.

While there’s a clear link between lack of money and unhappiness, the opposite cannot be said. The impact of cash on our general mood and well-being is, at best, negligible

The relationship between money and happiness plateaus at a certain level of wealth, and is also secondary to factors such as strong relationships, mental health and job satisfaction.

However, an intriguing new study has found that money actually does count towards happiness; as long as you spend it in a very specific way.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada found that paying people to do jobs we don’t want to do sparks an increase in happiness.

The paper, published Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesexplores how spending money on services that would otherwise clog up our head space and calendars – such as lawn moving, annoying bits of admin or cleaning – can lead to a small but significant surge in positive emotion.

Researchers believe the reason behind this happiness is that the cash we’ve spent has afforded us more free time – a rare commodity in our frenetic and attention-strapped world.

Psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn and her team first divided a group of participants into two groups and gave each person an allowance of  CA$40 (£25) to spend. One group were instructed to spend it on a material gift, such as a bottle of wine or a shirt, and the other group were told to invest in a service that would make their lives easier, from laundry services to help with tidying up.

This second group reported feeling more positive emotions at the end of the weekend, compared to the group who spent their allocated money on things.

"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 tells NPR.

The team's findings were supported by another larger survey they conducted of a group of 6,000 people in the States, Canada and Europe. Participants came with a wide range of incomes.

Each person was asked whether they spend money on freeing up time by paying for someone else to do annoying day-to-day tasks – and if so, how much they spent on this. They were then asked to rank their life satisfaction level out of ten.

People who spent money to buy time were almost a full point higher up in satisfaction and happiness terms than those who did not spend money in the same way.

"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.”

Images: iStock


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.