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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.
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.