Reclaiming your time improves happiness more than money

older couple counting money and handling bills
November 6, 2017 (Updated: November 8, 2017)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

So you really don’t want to clean the fridge or do the laundry.  You’d rather relax, take a walk, catch up on reading or emails, buy that cool new kitchen gizmo. So you hire someone to do your boring chores, but then do you feel a bit guilty? That’s predictable—but it’s wrong.

Money can’t buy happiness.  It’s not for sale at the mall—it’s something we create within ourselves. Sure, money can buy things—but they’re not what really counts. And some recent research drives this point home: If you use it right, money can buy time—that increasingly elusive resource. And time can equal happiness.

If you’re lucky enough to afford help, feel thankful, not guilty. But if hired help isn’t in your budget, you can still make some simple lifestyle changes to buy yourself more time—for free.

Mind over money

A ton of research has been aimed at the mind-body connection, and how that works to create or impede happiness.  Is it the breadth or depth of your social/family life?  Is it hobbies like painting or photography? Getting the latest new kitchen gadget?

Well, the answer is…all of the above and more, with one exception. Research has found that tangible possessions, like that new appliance, are less happy-making than free time.

And if you think free time is for rich folks only, please read on.

For example, if you want to give a school kid $5.00 to wash your car, and it won’t bust the bank, do it, and be thankful.  You’ve just earned yourself a bag full of free time. And you can fill that bag with whatever brings you happiness.

You’ve also made that kid happy with your generosity and sharing.  That’s not a small matter. In a fascinating study of Tibetan monks, MRIs of the pleasure centers of their brains showed the greatest activity when the monks focused on thoughts of generosity and compassion.

Surely that’s good medicine.  Here’s why.

Mind over body

Never forget that your state of mind controls your state of body.  If you’re frantic about a date or a deadline, every cell in your body is also frantic, producing or preventing this reaction or that.

Fortunately, the opposite is just as true. When you’re cool, calm, and collected, all of your cells sing the happy song together, and your body gets to claim a million health benefits.

So let’s learn some ways to bring on the happy song—by buying free time.

3 Steps to Reclaim Your Time and Get Happier

  1. Pay someone to do chores you dislike
  2. Schedule activities you do enjoy into your day
  3. Practice mindful meditation and keep track of what you’re grateful for

Time is of the essence

The research I’ve been mentioning set out to determine whether people who hired help to do their unwanted chores might feel more satisfied with their quality of life.

The research team found 60 volunteers under the age of 70. Each participant got $40 to spend during each of two consecutive weekends.

Here’s Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and an author of the study:

“On one weekend, we gave them $40 and asked them to spend it in any way that would give them more free time,” Dunn explains.

Participants chose a variety of services—meal delivery, a cleaning service, help with errands.

Then, on the following weekend, participants got another $40 to spend on a material purchase—anything they wanted.

One person bought polo shirts, another some wine that she called “fancy.”

After each weekend, the researchers contacted participants and asked them to self-assess their mood—how much “positive emotion” and how much “negative emotion.”

Time over stuff

When the participants spent their $40 on services to save time, they reported more positive emotion.  And importantly, no guilt.

“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 says.

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Interesting broad overview of the issue. But could we get specific? Could research actually quantify the differences in happiness?

Yes.

The same researchers surveyed 6,000 people in a wide range of locations and income brackets—from people in the U.S. making $30,000/year to millionaires in Europe.

Respondents self-assessed their level of happiness on a 10-point scale of life satisfaction—like a ladder with 10 rungs.

Results?

“What we found is that people who spent money to buy time reported being almost one full point higher on our 10-point ladder, compared to people who did not use money to buy time,” Dunn explains. People from across the income spectrum benefited from “buying time” instead of things.

Let’s suppose moving up one rung on the 10-rung happiness ladder means a 10 percent increase in happiness.  That can sound like a lot or a little—the old half-full-half empty dispute.

I say it’s a lot, and our research team is excited.

“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.”

A professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, who was not involved in the study, finds this intriguing, and wonders whether the results are sustainable over time. He floats the term “stress management tool” as a way to categorize this phenomenon.

Sounds very promising—especially if you’re in the robot business.

So…can money buy happiness?

It can, but only if we use it properly, in ways that promote our peace of mind and life satisfaction.

But never, ever conclude that money is a necessity.  It isn’t.

How do you make yourself happy?

As I said, you’re in charge of your state of mind, and your mind is in charge of your body. My own practice is as simple, and as life altering, as can be.

I start by thinking happy and grateful thoughts before I even get out of bed.  I count every blessing in my life and resolve to make good changes happen.  That way, I feel both empowered and focused—rarin’ to go.

Doesn’t cost me a dime.

If you’re not feeling that way when you wake up tomorrow morning, start by identifying three things in life that you’re thankful for—it could be anything from friends and family, to your pet, to your favorite song that lights up your day.

And make some small changes that can free up your time, or better still, enrich it. I suggest mindful meditation—the practice of clearing your mind of all distracting thoughts…and just being.

If you spend lots of time with the TV on, just shave 15 minutes off your normal viewing routine, and use those minutes for meditation. Or for any physical activity, even if it’s just a walk. You’ll be amazed at the positive changes you’ll see over time.

So count your blessings, not your money or your other stuff.

That’s taking good care.

References

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