Why millionaires are happier: The key is active leisure

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What do millionaires do all day long? Sipping champagne and eating well, driving fast cars, sailing or playing polo – that’s how many people imagine it. But is that also true? Although enormous media attention is paid to wealthy people, little is known about their everyday life.

Paul Smeets from the Dutch University of Maastricht, together with colleagues from the Harvard Business School and the University of Amsterdam, investigated how millionaires deal with their time compared to us mortals. On the one hand, the researchers were interested in whether millionaires might work differently – but also what exactly they do in their free time.

The scientists didn’t do this out of sheer curiosity, they wanted to find out something very specific. Earlier studies had shown two things: First, that there is a stable relationship between a person’s wealth and life satisfaction. The richer the happier. Sounds logical at first.

On the other hand, people who give priority to money in their lives are less satisfied with their lives than people who give priority to time. That means: what millionaires do with their time seems to be central to their satisfaction.

On average, millionaires work a little more every day than other people

For their study entitled “Time Use and Happiness of Millionaires: Evidence From the Netherlands”, Paul Smeets and his colleagues surveyed a total of 863 Dutch millionaires, who had an average of 2,375,905 euros in assets – almost 2.5 million euros. They gave them the same questionnaire as 1,232 normal mortals, which were selected to represent the Dutch population, with an average wealth of EUR 31,750.

All participants should first state how satisfied they were with their life on a scale from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied) – and how they spent their free time. The researchers differentiated between “active leisure time”, which included sports, meeting friends, hobbies and voluntary work, and “passive leisure time”: watching TV, resting, sleeping, doing nothing. Then there were “necessities” such as shopping, childcare, cooking and housework, as well as “food” and “work and communication”, which includes work and commuting.

When the researchers evaluated and compared the information, they were initially astonished: millionaires spent their time in a surprisingly similar way to everyone else – they worked a lot, for example, and, like other people, sometimes had to travel long commutes. They said they spent the equivalent of 30 percent of the day on work, with everyone else spending 25 percent.

Millionaires spend their free time very actively, everyone else is more passive

There were also only slight differences in the “necessities”: the millionaires spent as much time shopping and cooking as others, only spending a little less time on childcare and household chores. “This is consistent with studies that suggest that even if they can afford it, people often fail to outsource daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, and shopping,” the study authors write.

But when it came to leisure activities, the researchers discovered striking differences. Although both of the groups surveyed spent around 46 percent of their time doing leisure activities, they took just as often and a lot of time for what they enjoyed.

Also read: What it is like to be a hacker and a millionaire under 25

However, the non-millionaires liked to lie on the couch, watch TV or scroll through social media. The millionaires, on the other hand, spent most of their free time very actively: 22 percent of their free time was on the move, doing sports, pursuing hobbies or doing voluntary work. With everyone else, just under 16 percent of the time was spent so actively.

Converted to a normal day, the millionaires spent 29 minutes, a good half hour, much more active than everyone else – of which 19 minutes were used for sports and exercise.

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Being active makes you happy, but being passive makes you unhappy – everyone

But did that make the millionaires happier? Yes, the scientists say. On average, the rich were much more satisfied with their lives than everyone else. The difference was about the same as the drop in life satisfaction immediately after a divorce.

The researchers were also able to show that active leisure time activities were directly related to life satisfaction: the more active someone was, the better his life was. And vice versa: the more passively someone spent his free time, the more dissatisfied he was. The researchers emphasized that this applied equally to all participants – regardless of how much money they had.

So the biggest difference between millionaires and ordinary people was that they spent more time actively, and that was why they were happier. The money didn’t do any harm – but according to the scientists’ findings, it didn’t help either. But perhaps, writes Paul Smeets, wealth among millionaires shaped the way they think about and plan their time. Now he wants to investigate that next.


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