MB Washing machine
Do you have enough leisure and free time?

If the answer’s no, you are not alone. Most of us feel time pressured and, often stressed in our lives.

On the face of it this is surprising. Most us have more free time and work fewer hours than ever.

In 2016 the average UK worker put in 266 fewer hours a year than in 1970, equivalent to reducing the working year by over seven weeks. It’s a similar story across Europe, and working hours have also declined in famously workaholic societies like the US, South Korea and Japan. In many countries, especially in Europe, holiday entitlements have also improved.

So why do we continue to feel so time-stressed?

The answer seems to lie in how we use our spare time. Some activities, such as shopping, commuting and household chores, aren’t necessarily much fun. And despite the rise of internet shopping, labour saving devices and the rest, we spend a good chunk of time engaged in these sort of activities.

The average working-age American spends an average of three hours a day, including weekends, on chores. That compares to an average of five hours a day spent on leisure activities such as sports, going out, visiting or entertaining friends.

Some argue that technology is the source of our discontents, an accusation that TV faced in the 1960s and 1970s. It is true that social media and mobile communication can spell hassle, distraction and a sense of social envy; but it also makes our lives easier in numerous ways. An economist might observe that if new technologies are delivering net welfare losses then we are behaving remarkably perversely in spending so much time on them.

The good news is that economics offers powerful insights into how we can reduce stress and raise our feelings of wellbeing. A recently published paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA suggests that paying others to do your chores is a remarkably effective way of increasing happiness.

The authors asked more than 6,000 people in North America and Europe whether they spent money on time-saving services. Across both continents those who paid others to deal with tasks such as cleaning and cooking reported greater life satisfaction. This finding held regardless of income - rich or poor, people who buy time are happier.

To cross-check this finding, the researchers conducted a simple experiment among 60 working adults in Canada.One weekend the participants were given $40 to spend on a time-saving purchase. Some paid for cleaning services; others had groceries delivered to their home. The following weekend the participants were paid $40 to spend on a material good. When asked how happy they felt afterwards, the results were clear. Spending money on time-saving purchases left people in a better mood than spending money on things.

There’s no magic in this. The researchers believe that buying free time works for the simple reason that it reduces time stress. This matters because the feeling of being pressed for time is linked to a lower sense of well-being, reducing happiness and raising the incidence of obesity, anxiety and insomnia.

Having money and not being at work don’t necessarily make you happy if you feel inundated with chores. Being in control of your free time is what matters. This supports a broad body of research showing that people who have autonomy at work are happier.

If contracting out our chores is so welfare-enhancing, why don’t we cut back on buying stuff and spend more on services?

Guilt, or a misplaced sense that it is wasted money, may stop people from getting others to do their chores. Women may be especially vulnerable on this front. As the researchers observe, “Within many cultures, women may feel obliged to complete household tasks themselves, working a ‘second shift’ at home, even when they can afford to pay someone to help.”

The pursuit of material progress is a central aim of virtually all modern societies. We probably need to think rather harder about how we allocate our time away from work. Maybe we shouldn’t think about time-saving services as the lazy option. Buying time is a valuable buffer against the pressures of modern life.