Time use and happiness

Time is an important resource for everyone. It is also a limited resource in that we have only 24 hours in a day to put to competing uses. How we use this limited resource is important and has implications for our economic and social well-being.

Given this importance, the use or allocation of time has been studied by academics and policy analysts since the early twentieth century (Harvey and Pentland 1999). However, more systematic collection of time use data originated only in 1924, when significant quantities time use data were collected by Soviet Union (Juster and Stafford 1991). Since then, smaller “bits and pieces of information” on time use were collected with a focus on specific activities such as leisure and travel patterns, but it was not until 1960s that more systematic attempts was made to collect comparable data for large group of countries. The first such study was conducted by Alexander Szalai in 1963 for a group of 13 countries (Harvey and Pentland 1999).

Eventually, as research progressed, academics formulated a theory of time allocation, providing a proper framework to study time. In 1965, Gary S. Becker introduced the theory of allocation of time in which time was considered to have a cost on the same footing as the cost of market goods. At the heart of his analysis were households which were seen as both producers and consumers. He suggested that households produced commodities by combining inputs of goods and time according to the cost-minimisation rules of the traditional theory of the firm. Quantities of commodities produced are determined by their utility maximisation function subject to prices and constraints on resources. In other words, time is seen as a scarce input which is allocated between alternative productive activities as determined by utility maximisation and its cost in relation to other factors.

Since the 1960s, time use studies have been carried out in most of the industrialised countries and, lately, in developing countries as well, in five to ten year intervals (Juster and Stafford 1991). Much bigger multinational time use studies have been carried out recently; EUROSTAT conducted time use studies in 18 European countries in 1996 and 1997 (Harvey and Pentland 1999).

Turning now to the context of the study, i.e., the rationale for choosing time use as an indicator for Gross National Happiness, let me begin by saying that time use studies provide useful information missing in conventional economic accounts. The system of National Accounts, which is used to calculate GDP, does not measure productive activities accurately. A national accounting system that fails to recognise the total of productive capacities could lead to a conception and implementation of policies that are useless and harmful. In addition to paid work, productive activities include a series of unpaid activities such as household work, childcare, care of the sick and old, and time allocated to various other activities for the upkeep of societies. In addition to activities done for oneself and members of one’s household, productive activities also include voluntary activities carried out for members of the community or for people outside one’s community. These activities are fundamental to the well-being of both those who provide and who receive such services. A true picture of well-being can be obtained only if these activities are taken into account. Time use studies provide information on such activities that are fundamental to the well-being of society.

The detailed nature of information collected by time use studies enables policy makers to understand the needs of special groups of people, such as the old or disabled. As people age, their demands for assistance and care increase. If these demands are not satisfied, the well-being of the old and sick will deteriorate (Andorka 1987). Similarly, it is important to have adequate information on the time parents devote to their children. The quality of care children receive is correlated with their cognitive development (Hill and Stafford 1980). Sound policies related to these issues can only be formulated with the help of such detailed information.

Time use studies give information on what people actually do in their lives and, therefore, provide information on work and labour allocation (including that of children) within households, both at a point of time and over a period of time. Time use studies are, therefore, very useful for understanding the overall transformation or change experienced by societies. Such information is useful for designing comprehensive and balanced economic and social policies; needless to say, the well-being of societies can only be improved by informed policy formulation.

Time use studies provide information on the work-life balance of individuals in society. They provide information on the number of hours an individual spends on work and other activities, such as socializing with family and friends, sports, and other leisure activities. Imbalance in time allocation between work and other activities is caused by a number of factors among which the increased number of work hours is the most prominent. An increase in work hours, in turn, is, among other factors, caused by one’s desire to make more money. Money becomes the focus or the driving force behind long hours of work for many individuals. These individuals exaggerate the importance of money for their well-being, and they get into a situation of what has been called “focusing illusion”. As they devote more time to work they do not find time to do things that they enjoy. Such people are not happier but are much more stressed than others (Kahneman et al. 2006). The European Quality of Life Survey of 2003 revealed a strong correlation between time use and subjective well-being. In most of the countries covered by the survey, it was found that people who had long work hours and poor work-life balance generally had low subjective well-being (Böhnke 2005).

As individuals juggle to do so many things, they easily become stressed. Research has documented a series of stress related impacts on the health of workers. Workers in high-strain jobs have been shown to have a higher variety of disease than their fellow workers who are not or are less stressed. Cardiovascular disease, gastro-intestinal disorders, musculoskeletal problems, and the immune system are all affected by stress. Behavioural problems such as poor relations with colleagues, absenteeism, and loss of self-confidence and self-esteem are often caused by stress. All these consequences affect both the actual as well as the perceived well-being of individuals.

Time use data enable academics, policy analysts, policy makers and policy implementers to understand poverty better. “A significant part of the survival of poor households in developing countries is through home production”, for which time available to their members constitutes the main resource (Ilahi 2000). The more time they spend at work, the less time they have for leisure and, to the extent leisure is important to well-being, it could be said that the poor not only suffer from economic poverty but also from time poverty and therefore low well-being. This has been substantiated in the findings of studies by the World Bank in Sub-Saharan Africa. These studies revealed that poor farmers, especially women, face competing demands for their time (Blackden et al. 2005). They work on the farm, cook, attend to the sick, fetch water, tend to animals and do a host of other household activities. They do not find time to take up other productive activities even if there are opportunities to do so. They are often unable to take their sick children to health clinics because they are tied to several activities at the same time. They are not able to send their children to school even if there is an opportunity to do so. Children are required to stay back to help their parents who are caught up in unending cycles of work. In such cases, time poverty reinforces economic poverty. Understanding such situations would make it possible to formulate better policies to combat poverty.

In addition to these utilities of time use studies, time use merits inclusion as an index of Gross National Happiness for the number of direct linkages they provide to assessing the well-being of individuals. Juster, Courant and Dow (1985) developed a concept called “process benefits” which refers to well-being derived from doing an activity independently of its end results. According to these scholars, “time plays a crucial role not only as an input into a variety of market and non-market production activities, including leisure, but that time use is equally important as a direct source of satisfaction.” In other words, activities that an individual engages in not only yield “observable and measurable outcomes in the form of market and non-market goods” but outputs in the form of satisfaction from doing those activities. Such information can be obtained and understood through time use studies.

In 2004 Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, and Stone developed a method called Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) to quantify subjective well-being. Respondents, who comprised 909 working women from Texas, were asked to reconstruct their previous day in terms of how they spent their time and how they experienced a particular activity. It asked the participants to rate different activities in terms of levels of enjoyment, and it was found that socializing with friends and other leisure activities topped the enjoyment scale while being with the boss and commuting to work were at the bottom of the scale. They next used the scale to characterise the effects of a variety of circumstances and observed a very strong positive correlation between the scale of enjoyment and circumstances. For instance, women who did not sleep well the previous night did not enjoy activities they engaged in the next day. By enabling researchers to understand the way people spend their time and experience their activities, time use studies provide a meaningful lead to assess the well-being of individuals.

In 2006, Kahneman and Krueger developed another method to quantify or measure well-being. They developed a concept called the U-Index, which is defined as “the proportion of time an individual spends in an unpleasant state”. An episode is classified as unpleasant if the most intense feeling reported for that episode is negative. Using time use data, they show that respondents “who report less life satisfaction as a whole spend a greater fraction of their time in an unpleasant state.”

From this review of literature it is clear that time use studies provide critical information related to allocation of time (a scarce resource) and its distribution among different members of households. It provides data which could be used to assess the impacts of policies, compare cultures and societies, gauge lifestyle changes, and assess the needs of special groups of people such as the old and disabled. From the perspective of the present study, time use studies address several shortcomings of GDP-based measures of progress or development. They provide information on unpaid work, voluntary work and other community activities. These activities are all very vital to the well-being of individuals. More importantly, time use studies enable researchers to assess or understand the well-being of individuals directly.

Within the context of the above literature, this study intends to address three objectives: i) to find out amount of time respondents allocated to various activities and, by doing so, to identify the amount of household work, care work and other unpaid work that is normally not included in conventional economic accounts, ii) to find out how patterns of time use differ by gender, age, and other social and demographic characteristics of respondents, and iii) to assess how patterns of time use relate to reported levels of happiness. The remaining part of the paper provides an overview of the survey questionnaire and describes the methodology of the survey and its analysis; reports the time spent on various activities in demographic, economic and social characteristics of the respondents; studies the relationship between time use and the reported level of happiness or well-being that people enjoy in their life; and summarizes the findings and points out some policy implications as well as some directions for future time use surveys in Bhutan.