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By Wanda Thibodeaux

You’re a smart cookie. You know you can’t make yourself happy by burying yourself in material stuff. But as Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times reports, research led by Ashley Williams of Harvard Business School shows you shouldn’t disconnect your wallet from your contentment just yet. Pay someone to do everyday tasks you think suck–for example, cleaning up your house–and you might just see your joy-o-meter skyrocket off the charts.


Three studies, one uplifting result


Williams and his team surveyed approximately 4,500 people from four countries (the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark and the United States) to find out if they increased free time by paying others do to daily jobs they didn’t enjoy, such as shopping, cooking and household maintenance. About 1 out of 4 respondents (28 percent) said yes. To check the question scope, researchers then conducted a follow-up survey of approximately 1,800 Americans, asking if they spent money to buy more free time. This time, half the respondents said they did. For both surveys, the researchers found that people who bought themselves time were happier than individuals who opted to do their daily work themselves.


To see if they could verify their results further, Williams and his colleagues conducted one final study with 60 working adults. The researchers gave each participant $40 and told them to spend it on something material. They repeated this the following weekend, but this time, the researchers had the participants put the cash toward something that would give them more free minutes. The participants were happier when they spent the money on time-saving purchases.


Why shelling out cash for service cheers you up


Williams and his team assert that participants in the studies likely enjoyed better moods when they could pay others to do daily work because people become stressed by their perceived lack of free time. But why exactly does no free time translate to stress and unhappiness? That’s a little murkier, but there are at least four possible explanations.


1. Fear of messing up and being alone–When you don’t have any extra time, on some level, you probably recognize that there’s no real wiggle room to fix any mistakes you make. You might become anxious because you don’t want the negative judgment, rejection and isolation that potentially could come if you screw up and can’t fix it.

2. Inability to be yourself–What you do with free time says something about who you are. That is, it’s an expression of your personality, dreams and abilities. If you never get a chance to reveal yourself because “dumb chores” are holding you back, you’ll likely feel like life is unfair and has no real purpose, or that you’re little more than an imposter.

3. Poor control–People naturally want to have a say in what they do or what happens to them because it makes them feel safer, like the alpha rather than the beta. Having so much on your plate can make you feel like someone else–or even just the almighty, nameless powers that be–is calling the shots. That shatters the sense of security being able to allocate your time offers.

4. Thinking you’re missing the boat–Any time you spend time doing a chore, there’s an opportunity cost. You trade what you could have liked for getting the work done. At the back of your mind, you might be sad and frustrated that you’re not having those alternate experiences, worried that you’re not living to the fullest or keeping up with the Joneses. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is particularly severe among millennials, who compulsively connect to technology to see what’s happened or what others are doing.


Paying someone to do some of your chores doesn’t necessarily mean life suddenly will be perfect, but it gives you the feeling that you’re on freer, more stable, balanced ground and aren’t losing out so much. It puts choice, independence and individuality all back into the picture. And voila. Happiness comes back, too.


The big takeaway


Whether it’s paying someone to mow your lawn or splurging on a meal kit service so you don’t have to grocery shop after work, paying someone to do things for you isn’t sheer laziness. It’s a legitimate way to buy back a little joy. Just be realistic with your budget and, if cash is tight, concentrate on eliminating the top one to three time vampires out of your life.