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Having ‘active free time’ is the reason millionaires are happy, and not money

Both of the groups surveyed spent around 46% of their time on leisure activities.

Gary John Norman/Getty Images

  • People who prioritize money over time are less happy in life.
  • Researchers have now investigated how millionaires spend their free time.
  • They tend to spend their free time doing more active things like sports or other hobbies.

Many people imagine millionaires spend all their free time sipping champagne and eating well, driving fast cars, or sailing.

Although wealthy people receive enormous media attention, very little is known about their everyday lives.

Paul Smeets from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, together with Ashley Whillans from Harvard Business School and Rene Bekkers from the University of Amsterdam, investigated how millionaires manage their time compared to others. The researchers were interested in whether millionaires work differently, but also in what exactly they do in their free time.

The scientists didn’t do this out of pure curiosity; they wanted to find out something very specific. 

Earlier studies had shown two things. First, that there’s a stable relationship between wealth and life satisfaction. The richer, the happier. This 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. 

This means that what millionaires do with their time seems to be central to their happiness.

Millionaires work a little more on average than others

For their study, 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 around $2.7 million (€2,375,905) in assets. 

They gave them the same questionnaire as 1,232 others, selected to be representative of the Dutch population, with an average wealth of $36,000 (€31,750).

All participants were first asked to indicate how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale of 1 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied) and how they spent their free time over the last day. 

The researchers distinguished between “active leisure,” which included sports, meeting friends, hobbies, and volunteer work, and “passive leisure,” including things like watching TV, resting, sleeping, doing nothing. 

Then there were “necessities” like looking after children, cooking, shopping, and housework. The other categories were “eating” and “work and commuting.”

Initially, they found that the millionaires spent their time in similar ways to everyone else. For example, they worked a lot and, like other people, sometimes had long commutes. They reported spending the equivalent of 30% of their day working, compared to 25% for everyone else.

Millionaires spend their free time more actively

There were also only minor differences in “necessities.” 

The millionaires spent just as much time shopping and cooking as others, only spending slightly less time on childcare and cleaning chores around the house. 

But when it came to leisure activities, the researchers discovered major differences. 

Both of the groups surveyed spent around 46% of their time on leisure activities.

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 actively. 22% of their free time was spent moving around, playing sports, pursuing hobbies, or doing volunteer work. For all the others, just under 16% of their free time was spent actively.

It means the millionaires spent 29 minutes, or a good half hour, much more actively than everyone else. 19 minutes of this were spent on sports and exercise alone.

Being active makes you happy, while being passive makes you unhappy 

On average, the rich were significantly more satisfied with their lives than everyone else. 

The researchers were also able to show that active leisure activities were directly related to life satisfaction.

The more active someone was, the better they were doing with their life. And vice versa. 

The more passively someone spent their leisure time, the less satisfied they were. The researchers emphasized that this applied equally to all participants, regardless of how much money they had.

The biggest difference between the millionaires and the others was that they spent more time actively, and that was also the decisive factor in why they were more satisfied. 

The money probably didn’t do any harm, but according to the scientists’ findings, it didn’t help either. 

But it’s possible, the researchers said, that the wealth of the millionaires shaped the way they thought about and planned their time. 

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