Leadership

A psychology expert says spending your money on this can boost your happiness

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Think about the thing you most hate spending your time on doing. Research shows that if you can afford to use some of your money to buy your way out of that dreaded task, you can be a lot happier in life.

"What matters for your wellbeing is what you're doing with the minutes and days of your life," University of British Columbia psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn tells CNBC Make It. "If you have a lot of money and a lot of nice stuff, but you're spending your time doing things that you dislike, then your minute-to-minute happiness and overall happiness is likely to be pretty low."

Dunn, also the co-author of "Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending," says that the old saying, "money can't buy happiness" may actually be a bit misleading. If you buy yourself out of doing something that takes up your time or makes you miserable, that allows you to make room for doing more of what you enjoy, she says.

In a study she co-authored and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dunn found that "time is the new essential currency for many people."

"In terms of our happiness, time is really the fundamental currency," Dunn says. "What really matters for your day-to-day moods is what it is you're doing with your time."

As part of the study, researchers surveyed more than 6,000 people in four countries and also ran an experiment in which they gave people $40 for two weeks.

One week, they had to buy something material and the following week, they used the money to buy themselves time. Some examples of time-saving costs include hiring someone else to mow your lawn or clean your home, ordering take away food, taking cabs over public transportation or shopping online.

People reported feeling happier when they used their money for time-saving services than on material things.

Although millennials are less likely to "be rolling in the dough," as Dunn puts it, she emphasizes that "buying time is not only for rich people." The average amount of money people in the study spent on time-saving costs was between $80 to $100 a month, but even the $40 they were given in the experiment created a notable difference in their happiness.

In the larger survey, Dunn also measured "time stress," or the amount you stress you feel over not having enough time in the day to do what needs to get done. People who feel more pressed for time are less satisfied with life.

But when people of all income levels use money to buy time, that time stress disappears.

"Ultimately, I hope the research helps people refocus spending priorities and stop to think, "Is this purchase going to make me happy?'" Dunn says.

She also hopes the research validates people to feel okay to pay their way out of doing something they hate doing. Her latest research suggests some people feel a sense of guilt about using money to buy time, even when they can afford it, because most time-saving services are things you can live without or do yourself

Instead of letting the guilt chip away at your happiness, Dunn has these three steps to help you make more effective money and time decisions.

Think about what your average day looks like

Before you reach for your card, ask yourself: "Will this purchase change the way I spend my time on an average day?"

"If the answer is no, then maybe consider not spending the money and saving it," Dunn says.

On the flip side, if there is a way to buy yourself out of a task that you hate, give yourself permission to do it.

"Try it for a few weeks and see if it's actually making a difference for your well-being," Dunn says. "Discover if this is making you happier on a typical day."

Truly prioritize your time

One mistake Dunn advises you make sure to not make is think that "time is money."

By thinking of them as equal, you are less likely to engage in kinder acts like helping a friend, do volunteer work, recycle or take other actions that might not involve earning money as a result, Dunn's research shows.

What we should actually prioritize, according to Dunn, is time.

"There's been too much focus on maximizing money," Dunn says. "Instead, think about how you can set up your life to maximize the time you get to do the things you love and minimize the time you have to spend doing what you hate."

Make happiness your end goal

"This is not permission to just spend more money, but rather about changing how you spend your money," she says. "Certainly do not go into debt trying to do this."

Dunn points out that making this change on your own can be difficult, especially if you are a millennial.

"Millennials have gotten a bad deal in terms of coming of age in a challenging economy," Dunn says. "They learned to not spend money, and that may be a good strategy overall but sometimes buying time can mean, saying okay things are actually going to be okay, it's okay to spend a little bit of money."

The $10 billion self-care industry is an example of how much people, especially millennials, are willing to shell out money for happiness, as NPR reported, which itself is not wrong until you start feeling that money-related guilt again.

"We have this implicit assumption that a lot of the money we spend is going to make us happy," Dunn says.

This is why Dunn worked with financial company Happy Money on the recently-launched free app called "Joy," which takes a psychology-based approach to saving money and, in turn, create a healthier relationship between you and your personal finances.

Screengrabs from Happy Money's free "Joy" app.
Courtesy of Happy Money
Screengrabs from Happy Money's free "Joy" app.

"Each time you make a purchase it asks you if that was happy money or sad money. The idea is that over time you can start to notice what actually makes you happy or sad when you spend your money," Dunn explains.

"People do not have unlimited money, so buying one thing means not being able to pay for something else," she adds. "Shifting the focus to not just say 'let me make more income' but let me just spend my money in ways that are actually making me happy is a really promising strategy."

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