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How Money Can Buy Happiness

The best use of spare cash is to purchase devices or services that save you time.

One of our most cherished clichés—money can't buy happiness—may need to be amended.

New research suggests that spending cash can indeed bolster life satisfaction—if the end result is more free time.

Such purchases can provide a buffer against "time famine," which in turn promotes happiness, reports a research team led by Ashley Whillans of Harvard Business School.

"Spending money to buy free time," the researchers write, is a "previously unexamined route from wealth to well-being."

The findings suggest that, if Americans really are as unhappy as we insist we are, one major reason may be that so many of us opted to buy a bigger home on the outskirts of town. We assumed that the pleasures it afforded would compensate for the time lost in a lengthy commute.

We were wrong.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, utilizes both survey data and a field experiment. The surveys featured 6,271 people in the United States, Denmark, Canada, and the Netherlands.

Investing in a kitchen appliance that allows you to make a meal in half the time could have an profound, perpetual payoff.

All participants "completed two questions about whether—and how much—money they spent each month to increase their free time by paying someone else to complete unenjoyable daily tasks."

Altogether, 28 percent reported they did so—and across the board, they "reported greater life satisfaction," the researchers write.

"These results were not moderated by income," they add, "suggesting that people from various socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from making time-saving purchases."

The experiment featured 1,802 working American adults. Using "a broader definition of time-saving purchases," the researchers report half the participants said they spend money in this way. Of that group, the majority "reported spending money to busy themselves out of cooking, shopping, and household maintenance," which presumably includes prepared meals and house-cleaning services.

The results replicated those of the surveys: Participants "who spent money on time-saving purchases reported greater life satisfaction."

A final study featured 60 working adults in Vancouver, Canada, who were assigned to spend $80 over two consecutive weekends. One weekend, they spent $40 "on a purchase that would save them time"; on the other, they used the same amount to purchase some tangible object or objects.

In subsequent phone surveys, they reported "greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase."

"Taken together, our findings suggest that using money to buy time may reduce feelings of time pressure on a given day, and also provide a cumulative benefit by serving after " the researchers write.

The results suggest we have a skewed sense of what will bring us joy. A new high-definition television may be tempting, but it's the sort of acquisition we come to take for granted. In contrast, investing in a kitchen appliance that allows you to make a meal in half the time could have an profound, perpetual payoff.

So while the Beatles were correct to insist that "Money can't buy me love," it turns out it can provide something nearly as precious. Our time on Earth is, after all, the ultimate limited resource.