Food Science

Is Takeout the Ticket to Happiness?

July 31, 2017

A report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences released last Monday, titled "Buying time promotes happiness," has been making the rounds. A group of researchers sought to bring clarity to a much-hypothesized, but unexamined, relationship between money and happiness, to see if there’s any causality between the two in the age of the sharing economy.

To do this, they collected “large, diverse samples” from four different countries—the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands—and surveyed working adults across many income spectrums to see how they spent their money. What the researchers found was that doling out money for delivery and takeout services fostered feelings of satisfaction more often than not, because allocating money to these services freed up people's schedules.

The researchers began by asking over 4,469 working adults in those countries two questions—1) whether, and how much, money they spent each month for delivery services, takeout, or house cleaners, and 2) how satisfied they were with their lives. Across the board, 28% of the respondents spent money in this manner, $147.95 a month on average. Researchers discovered that people who put money towards these services were, across income levels, more satisfied than respondents who didn't spend their money that way.

Compelled, the researchers conducted two more experiments: They asked a new group of 1,800 Americans more broadly-worded versions of those same questions. Of those respondents, 50% said they allotted money to time-saving services, between $80 and $99 per month. They were generally happier when they did so.

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As a third, and final, approach, researchers armed a few dozen Canadian adults in Vancouver with $40 on different weekends and asked them to spend that money in two ways—one on time-saving services, the other on run-of-the-mill material goods. (To buffer against any conditioning, they randomized the order of these two scenarios.) Researchers then called participants at 5PM each day about how they were feeling, and respondents reported they were happier after spending money on time-saving services than on material goods.

I'm intrigued, though this strikes me as a bit flawed—"happiness” is a mood that’s more than a short-term burst of euphoria, which makes these findings more compelling than conclusive to my eye. The full text of the study is here, and it’s not staggeringly long. Most coverage I’ve seen of the study has put a pretty positive spin on the findings, with some saying that this proves ordering delivery or takeout food should be guilt-free. That angling is unsurprising: Many of these lifestyle publications are speaking to a certain class of urban-dwelling readers clustered on the coasts, with a number of takeout options available at their fingertips.

“Future research could also explore the boundaries of the relationship between buying time and life satisfaction across the income spectrum,” the researchers acknowledge in the discussion that follows the presentation of findings. “Across studies, we found no consistent evidence that the benefits of buying time are limited to relatively wealthy people.” In fact, they say, the causal relationship in the States was stronger among less-affluent respondents.

Fascinating, but there’s a crucial admission by the researchers near the end that I find more curious: There were very few, if any, respondents at the absolute lowest rungs of the income spectrum. I’m afraid not all of us have enough disposable income to devote to takeout regularly. Whether this belief—that spending money can buy you enough time to ultimately stimulate happiness—holds true for that demographic is, personally, a study I’m more interested in seeing.

What do you make of this study? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


MarieGlobetrotter August 3, 2017
I don't ever order. Ever. In the past it was mostly a question of price and lack of options. The restaurant options in used to be, and still often are, quite unhealthy - despite the existence of UberEats and the likes. Plus there is always so much food and I don't care much for restaurant left-overs. Second, and that is my main reason: I just find cooking relaxing - even on a work day. I also like doing it on the week-end: going to the market, planning meals, carefully choosing your ingredients etc. In the end it also less expensive than ordering in.
Maybe it's a family thing. We all have different lives, but my mother still enjoys cooking for herself every day, so do my brothers and their partners. After a day in the office, it's just something to do that does not involve sitting down and looking at a screen (even though I love my job). There is something more gratifying in cooking for yourself (and your family if you don't live alone).
luvcookbooks August 1, 2017
Friday nights even not so great takeout or heating up Amy's Tofu Lasagna is a godsend. I am building house cleaning into my budget. Having the house clean is also a godsend and I don't keep up with it. My mom almost never did takeout and kept a spotless home but didn't work outside the home most of our kid lives.
Niknud August 1, 2017
I can't stress enough how awesome it is. And most house cleaning services will do a partial if you don't want to pay for the whole house. I know when we've been a little strapped for funds we've dropped it down to just bathrooms and stairs (the things I hate the most to clean).
Whiteantlers July 31, 2017
I rarely get take out because I don't like leftovers and try ordering moo goo gai pan or Thai red curry that is just enough for one meal. My city has GrubHub, Caviar, PostMates, Uber Eats and other take out delivery services unexplored by me. I do, however, have groceries, organic food (some of it pre-made) and pet food/items delivered on an average of once per week. I am a senior with impaired vision, I don't drive, and it is not always convenient or practical to take a bus to a purveyor of goods, shop, try to get all my purchases onto the bus, pray for a seat, then try to get all the purchases into my home before inducing a heart attack or a few pulls on the oxygen tank. I am supremely happy and content (happiness is fleeting; contentment sticks around) when someone delivers to my home.
Niknud July 31, 2017
I agree that the happiness you can gain with takeout is limited by the quality of takeout in your neighborhood (inserts sad sob at the state of Chinese food in my area). That being said (and realizing all the caveats that come with having disposable income sufficient to allow these luxuries), we pay for a house cleaning every other week. We started doing this when I was working full time, had a six month old and my husband was deployed. It was a gift from my dad - paying for a housecleaning during that deployment. It was fantastic. And we have kept it up, sacrificing other things to be able to afford that expense. To not have to spend extremely limited free time scrubbing toilets and instead playing with the kiddos or cooking a nice meal is worth every penny. I'm not looking at the bathroom used by the two small boys with dread and guilt. And my husband and I aren't feeling resentful when the housework isn't divvied up equally on any given week. So, maybe takeout isn't the key to happiness but, at least in our household, a cleaner is.