Want to be happier? Don't do laundry. Seriously. Science says so.
April 08, 2021
by OLGA KHAZAN
Recently, my boyfriend and I grew tired of 9 p.m. dinner fights and pizza orders, so we signed up for Blue Apron. Now, our fridge is filled with individually wrapped celery stalks and 1-ounce packets of aioli, ready to be transformed, cooking-show style, into an edible meal—even after a 14-hour workday.
We live in the suburbs, so when I have an after-work event, I hail whichever car-sharing service had fewer labor abuses that week and try not to ever mention it to my Marxist father.
And a month ago, after realizing I would need approximately 900 shift dresses to fulfill my moderating duties at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I tried a service that shops for you. I had to return all but an overpriced blouse, but at least I didn’t have to leave the house, look at it, or even click on anything first.
Sure, my life might seem like the bleak portrait of late capitalism, but in fact, it’s the epitome of good cheer. So says a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that people who use such “time-saving” services are generally happier than those who don’t.
Researchers asked participants in the United States, Denmark, Canada, and the Netherlands how much money they spent each month on having someone else do tasks they found unpleasant, as well as how satisfied they were with their lives. The services could include things like laundry pickup service, grocery delivery service, a housecleaner, or taking cabs rather than buses. About 28 percent of the respondents spent money in this way, spending about $147.95 each. Across countries and income levels, those who spent money to save time reported greater levels of life satisfaction.
The explanation was simple: Using money to buy time made people feel less time-crunched, and thus, happier.
The study presents an interesting twist on a well-established theory in psychology: With some exceptions, experiences tend to make people happier than things do. In this case, it’s not a mind-blowing concert itself that brings joy, but the arrival of the babysitter, so that you can rock out to your favorite band—or maybe just get some work done—stress-free. In this study, people who made a $40 time-saving purchase felt better than those who spent it on a physical good.
The connection between time-saving and happiness was pretty reliable, but, it seemed, only to a point. At the highest levels of spending on time saving, life satisfaction dipped again. The authors propose this is because outsourcing every part of your life could lead to a loss of control, “by leading people to infer that they are unable to handle any daily tasks.” Of course, as those familiar with Rule 34 might know, just because something gives you pleasure, doesn’t mean it’s not icky.
In one experiment in this study, the authors asked 98 working adults how they would spend $40, and only 2 percent said they’d make a time-saving purchase. Even when you’re playing with imaginary money, saying you’d use it to hire a maid can seem snooty and classist.
What to take away from this paper? It does suggest a path forward for frazzled, white-collar parents who, studies show, are less happy than their child-free counterparts. It’s likely not that children themselves are depressing, but rather that meticulously crafting a toddler-friendly dinner is not a fulfilling way for a corporate executive to spend her evening. In other words, get you a cook (or some healthyish takeout), and you might start grinning like a mom on the cover of a parenting magazine.
On the other hand, the authors admit that their studies included few very poor people, “leaving open the supposition that the benefits of buying time would not emerge for individuals struggling to meet their own basic needs.” In other words, let’s be clear about whose happiness we’re talking about here, and at whose expense it’s coming. Low-income workers are largely the ones who provide these services, and they often can't afford them for themselves.
The authors end on a positive note, saying that in situations of “time famine” (!!), organizations might consider rewarding employees with time-saving services. And indeed, some tech companies are now offering house cleaning and laundry services to their employees as perks. Still, the fairest way to end the time famine—for everyone, not just for well-off workers—might be to make it rain work-life balance.
OLGA KHAZAN is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.