All rich people are always happy

Why millionaires are happier: The key is active leisure

The richer people are, the happier they are. On the other hand, people who prioritize money in their lives are less satisfied than people who prioritize time.

What millionaires do with their time seems to be central to ensuring that they are also satisfied. Researchers have now investigated how exactly they spend their free time in comparison with other people.

The key to happiness: In comparison, the millionaires worked a little more and spent their free time much more actively than others: with sports, hobbies or volunteer work.

What do millionaires actually do all day? Sipping champagne and eating well, driving fast cars, sailing or playing polo - that's how many imagine it. But is that also true? While wealthy people receive tremendous media attention, very little is known about their everyday lives.

Paul Smeets from the Dutch University of Maastricht, together with colleagues from Harvard Business School and the University of Amsterdam, examined how millionaires deal with their time compared to us normal 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 curiosity, they wanted to find out something very specific. Earlier studies had shown two things: firstly, 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 prioritize money in their lives are less satisfied with their lives than people who prioritize time. That means: What millionaires do with their time seems to be very important for ensuring that they are also satisfied.

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

For their study with the beautiful title “Time Use and Happiness of Millionaires: Evidence From the Netherlands”, Paul Smeets and his colleagues interviewed 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, who were selected to be representative of the Dutch population, with an average wealth of 31,750 euros.

All participants were asked to indicate 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”, which included sports, meeting friends, hobbies and voluntary work, and “passive leisure”: watching TV, resting, sleeping, doing nothing. Then there were “necessities” such as shopping, child care, cooking and housework, as well as “eating” and “work and communication”, which includes work and commuting time.

When the researchers evaluated and compared the information, they were initially astonished: Millionaires spent their time in a surprisingly similar way to everyone else - for example, they worked a lot and, like other people, sometimes had to cope with long commutes. They stated that they spend the equivalent of 30 percent of the day at work, with everyone else it was 25 percent.

Millionaires spend their free time very actively, everyone else more passively

There were also only minor differences in terms of “necessities”: The millionaires spent just as much time shopping and cooking as others, only spending a little less time on childcare and cleaning the household. "This agrees with research suggesting that even when people can afford it, they often fail to outsource daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning and shopping," the study authors write.

But when it came to recreational activities, the researchers discovered striking differences. Both of the groups surveyed spent around 46 percent of their time on leisure activities, so they took just as much time and did what they enjoyed.

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

However, the non-millionaires then liked to lie down 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 they were on the move, did sports, pursued hobbies or did 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 an hour, much more actively than everyone else - 19 minutes of that were used for sport and exercise.

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

But did that make the millionaires happier too? Yes, say the scientists. The rich were, on average, significantly 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 off they were with their lives. And vice versa: the more passively someone spent their free time, the more dissatisfied they were. The researchers emphasize that this applied equally to all participants - regardless of how much money they had.

So the biggest difference between millionaires and mere mortals was that they were more active, and that was also what made them happier. The money probably didn't do any harm - but according to the scientists' findings, it didn't help either. Perhaps, however, writes Paul Smeets, the wealth among millionaires shaped the way in which they think about their time and plan it. He now wants to investigate that next.


This article was published by Business Insider in September 2020. It has now been reviewed and updated.

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