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Time-saving purchases, no matter your income level, are linked to greater life satisfaction, a study suggests

"Time famine" is a thing, experts say, and there are ways to fight it

CNN  — 

Ashley Whillans’ summer started with what she calls “time famine.”

Time famine, a term that first emerged in the scientific literature around 1999, refers to the universal feeling of having too much to do but not enough time to deal with those demands.

After earning her doctorate degree in social psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, Whillans was offered a coveted assistant professorship at Harvard Business School. Last month, Whillans and her husband uprooted to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States – and it was overwhelming, she said.

“I had multiple demands on my time. I was immigrating to a new country. I was trying to move to a new city. I was trying to move to a new job,” Whillans said.

She felt as if there weren’t enough hours in the days leading up to her big move, she added. In that moment, Whillans thought about her own research on how to buy time. Suddenly, she put her research findings into action.

“We find that spending money on time-saving purchases promotes daily happiness and reduces negative mood, because it protects us from the time stress that we feel in our daily lives,” Whillans said. “So, I definitely have used in the last few weeks time-saving services,” such as grocery delivery or house cleaning services, car services like Uber or Lyft, or paying a teen in the neighborhood to mow the lawn.

Spending discretionary dollars on time-saving purchases may protect you from the detrimental effects that a time famine can have on your happiness, suggests a new study of which Whillans served as lead author.

How so? Buying time could provide a buffer against such time famine, thereby promoting overall well-being and happiness, according to the study, which published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

On the surface, the study may seem like it’s offering a solution only for the affluent – not everyone has the discretionary dollars to pay for time-saving services – but the study also points out how time famine impacts us all.

“I think our research actually flies in the face of the preconception that time-saving services are just for rich people,” said Elizabeth Dunn, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the study.

“Sometimes when people imagine time-saving services maybe what they’re picturing is a house keeper, butler, and a gardener,” she said, “but what we’re talking about is just spending $40 makes a difference.”

On average, the hourly cost of a house cleaner can range from $25 to $45, according to the American home services website Angie’s List.

“I have groceries delivered to my house. I had someone clean my house before my father came to visit. I had someone move away my moving boxes. I honestly think, if it wasn’t for doing this research, I might have had some apprehension with making those purchases,” Whillans said.

Time famine, across all income levels

The new study included self-reported data on 6,271 adults from the United States, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands. The data were collected through questionnaire-based studies and an experiment.

The adults, of various income levels, all shared information about whether they tend to spend money – and how much – on time-saving purchases, as well as how satisfied they feel with their lives.

The researchers found that, regardless of income level, spending money to buy time was associated with greater life satisfaction. They also found that the negative effects of feeling stressed for time were reduced among those who reported making time-saving purchases, such as paying others to clean their home or run errands, for instance.

“What we actually find in our data is that the role of time-saving purchases is independent from the role of income in predicting happiness,” Whillans said.

“Across studies we find that people who spend money in ways that allow them to have more free time report greater life satisfaction,” she said. “The way that people are spending money, and in this case, spending money to buy themselves free time, has a similar positive association with happiness as how much money people make.”

That finding also emerged when study participants were randomly assigned to actively make time-saving purchases, Whillans said.

After all, across all countries represented in the study, it turned out that not many people actually made regular time-saving purchases on their own.

“The thing that surprised me the most is how few people actually choose to spend their money on time-saving services,” Dunn said.

“Notably, even in our sample of over 800 millionaires in the Netherlands, almost half of them report spending no money to pay others to do tasks for them,” Dunn said.

“In Vancouver, where we ran our main experimental study, we asked 98 working adults, if we gave you $40 to spend on the weekend, what would you do with it?” she said. “Only 2% reported that they would spend the money in a way that we would classify as being time-saving.”