We’d all be so much happier and less stressed out if we just had our own private butlers.
At least that’s the conclusion of a new study, published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers asked 6,000 working adults, in the U.S. and elsewhere, to spend $40 over two weeks. The first week, they could only buy material goods. On the second, they had to make timesaving investments, like hiring somebody to clean their house or run errands for them.
By a wide margin, the people who spent money on lackeys reported being substantially happier than those who just filled their homes with more stuff they probably didn’t need.
Why? Ashley Whillans, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Harvard Business School, says that culturally we tend to focus on how to buy into positive experiences, like a meal at a fancy restaurant or a vacation. But we should probably be paying more attention to “the benefits of buying ourselves out of negative experiences,” she says.
In theory, it makes sense. In practice, though, paying people to do your bidding is not as easy, or as pleasurable, as it sounds.
A few years ago, after my wife and I had a baby, we decided to invest in maids. We deserved the break, we told ourselves. And we could afford it. But if you’re not accustomed to having strangers come to your home and clean your dirty toilet in exchange for cash, it’s not always a sigh of relief.
The night before the maids showed up, we did a quick pre-clean, so they wouldn’t think we were disgusting pigs. We vacuumed and dusted and did the dishes and generally uncluttered.
My apartment got clean, but I didn’t save any time. In fact, I lost time, trying to prove to these women (who probably couldn’t have cared less) that I was a good person and not a slob who wants to watch other people do something I could totally do if I wasn’t such a lazy slacker. After just a few visits, my wife and I canceled the maid service and we never spoke of it again.
“You hit the nail on the head, so to speak,” Whillans told me when I shared my maid anxiety. “We are conducting research right now looking at barriers that prevent people from spending money to buy time. Our initial studies point to the idea that guilt might undermine people’s willingness to buy time and the happiness benefits they derive from buying time.”
This news just made me determined to try again. I wasn’t going to let something as stupid as guilt stop me from experiencing true happiness. If I could get over this emotional hurdle, I could be in my backyard every day, playing catch with my son, while some other schmuck emptied my dishwasher and remembered to stir the chili heating on the stove.
I got my opportunity when Joe, a good friend for over twenty years, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. My family and I recently moved into a new apartment, and while the boxes were mostly unpacked, we still hadn’t gotten around to hanging our framed art. Because everything about it is a colossal pain in the butt. You’ve got to figure out if you need regular nails or anchor bolts, and measure for symmetrical wall placement, and get a level so it’s not tilting too much to one side. It’s just a whole thing. I hate all of it with every fiber of my being.
But Joe, if he’s to be believed, loves it. It’s his idea of a good time. He’s the kind of guy with a garage filled with tools, who spends his free time at hardware stores and can identify a bolt size by sight. When Joe heard that we’d recently moved, he offered to come to our home and mount our art for us, like I was doing him a favor.
He offered to do it for free, but I wanted to pay him (because otherwise, it felt like slave labor) and suggested $40, just because it was the same amount used in the happiness study. It was a morally airtight business transaction. He was getting paid to do something he already enjoys, and I was getting a few bonus hours back on my life clock. Everybody wins! So why did it still leave me feeling so miserable?
“How does this look?” Joe asked me, as he held a frame against my bedroom wall and looked back to me.
“Brilliant,” I said, glancing up from my book. “I am literally blown away. You’ve changed the entire aesthetic of this room. I can’t thank you enough.” I knew I was overselling it, but the guilt was suffocating. I’d tried avoiding him all morning, but whatever room I retreated to, I could still hear the clap-clap-clap of his hammer, like an accusatory heartbeat in an Edgar Allan Poe poem.
“Can I ask you something?” I finally said. “Have you ever hired someone to do your grunt work?”
“No, never,” Joe said, without hesitating.
“What if you were rich?” I asked. “You wouldn’t pay somebody to get your free time back?”
He shrugged. “What do I need more free time for? I like being busy. Having too much to do keeps me focused. I feel smarter when I’m struggling to keep up.”
There’s a lot of truth to that. I’ve never been more clear-headed, or more productive than when I have too much on my plate. When my wife and kid are out of town and I have no responsibilities, I usually waste away my free time binge-watching TV and eating like a prepubescent at a sleepover. But when I’m overcommitted and I can’t possibly get it all done, that’s when I get laser-focused.
Maybe happiness isn’t paying people to do the things you hate. Maybe happiness is realizing that the things you hate can wait, cause the world won’t end if you ignore the dust bunnies under your couch. I feel like crap hiring a friend or stranger to do my dirty-work because they’re doing the stuff I’d normally be ignoring so I can do the things that matter. If my laundry is already done and the dishes are washed and the bills are paid, then all I have is free time. And nothing meaningful happens when you’re wallowing in free time.
I tried to give Joe the $40 I’d promised, but he had a better idea. Instead, we went to the nearest bar and consumed way too many bourbon cocktails for that early on a weekday. We talked about our dads and all the grand declarations they made about home repairs or projects that they somehow never got around to finishing. Then we talked about our respective “to do” lists, and how they always seemed to get longer, not shorter. We laughed at how miserably behind we both were, and how we’d probably die before we finished even a fraction of what we’d promised.
It’s debatable whether you can buy happiness, but you definitely can’t buy your way out of guilt. You have to earn that, by occasionally sneaking away with a friend to get day-drunk and letting all your chores remain blissfully untouched for at least one afternoon.