We’re Happier if We Pay Someone Else to Do Our Chores

Photo credit: jarmoluk, CC0 Public Domain.

This week, on the Washington Post:

One surprising way money can buy happiness, according to scientists

No, the “one surprising way money can buy happiness” isn’t experiences. (We’re no longer surprised by that.) Instead, it’s paying people to do certain types of experiences for you.

According to a study published Monday in the journal PNAS, people who buy time by paying someone to complete household tasks are more satisfied with life. And it’s not just wealthy people. Across a range of incomes, careers and countries, timesaving purchases were correlated with less time-related stress and more positive feelings.

Yet the researchers’ surveys showed that very few individuals think to spend money in this way.

Really? Very few people think to spend money to “outsource household tasks such as cooking, shopping and general maintenance”? We’re just sitting at home, with our stacks of bills and our oh-so-indulgent Netflix subscriptions, not thinking about how we could be happier if we paid people to cook and shop for us?

It’s time to go to the source, as usual.

Buying time promotes happiness

Despite rising incomes, people around the world are feeling increasingly pressed for time, undermining well-being. We show that the time famine of modern life can be reduced by using money to buy time. Surveys of large, diverse samples from four countries reveal that spending money on time-saving services is linked to greater life satisfaction. To establish causality, we show that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. This research reveals a previously unexamined route from wealth to well-being: spending money to buy free time.

How is this previously unexamined? I could link to four articles about the time cost of low incomes right now, and another two describing how many Americans, regardless of income level, are working more than 40 hours per week.

Or I could just quote that tweet thread from the talking avocado:

The idea that people with more money can buy free time is not new, y’all.

Also, the PNAS study began by surveying Mechanical Turk workers, which… look, I’ve been a Turker before, and it was when I needed money so badly that I was willing to sell 15 minutes of my time to take a survey that paid $1.00. (Or to spend two hours doing three-minute tasks that paid 15 cents each.)

Later, they survey “adults from Canada, the United States, Denmark, The Netherlands, and a large sample of Dutch millionaires,” and offer groups of people the opportunity to spend $40 on something that saves time, spend another $40 on a “material purchase,” and compare happiness levels.

This study is… kind of bizarre, really. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite the potential benefits of buying time, many respondents allocated no discretionary income to buying time, even when they could afford it: just under half of the 818 millionaires that we surveyed spent no money outsourcing disliked tasks. Our initial surveys used a narrow definition of buying time (“outsourcing disliked tasks”), but even when we broadened our definition in our preregistered survey study, half of our respondents still reported not using any money on “purchases that save time.” Of course, some participants may have failed to accurately remember or construe how their recent purchases might have saved them time. Therefore, we asked an additional sample of 98 working adults how they would spend a windfall of $40 (using the identical prompt and the identical participant population from our experiment), and asked them to describe the intention of the purchase. Only 2.0% spontaneously reported that they would make a time-saving purchase (see SI Appendix, Additional Results for study 9).

Only 2 percent of people said they’d spend a $40 windfall on a time-saving purchase, which makes sense when you think about how much time you can actually save with just $40. That’s… a round-trip on Uber instead of taking the bus (or instead of driving and finding/paying for parking). It might be two hours with a housecleaning service, but you also have to do the work of identifying and vetting the service and having that initial conversation with the housecleaner and hanging around while your house is being cleaned.

Anyway. It seems obvious, from my nonscientific perspective, that the reason most of us don’t think of using money to save time is because we don’t have enough discretionary income to save large amounts of time. (Also, because we might have concerns about buying up other people’s lifetimes to do our chores. Finding ethical housekeeping services that pay living wages, for example, is a task in itself.)

And yes, we might experience “better well-being” if we had someone to do our cooking and cleaning and shopping for us, but—sorry, there’s only one way I can end this—at what cost?