Interlude: The cost of happiness

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 27, 2019 - June 02, 2019.
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What you are about to read, admittedly, is a First World problem. I was on the verge of a meltdown a couple of weeks ago over a pile of dirty laundry. I would not have been that exasperated had there not been two toilets to scrub down, a kitchen to scour and a whole lot of vacuuming, sweeping and mopping to do as well.

I also have to do the housework at my parents’ place and run their errands on weekends. They are in their seventies, have health issues and own a house that is considerably larger than my 1,010 sq ft apartment. And mind you, these are just the weekly tasks on top of the daily chores of meal preparation and cooking.

I do not have pets (largely because I am allergic to them) nor do I have children. I will graciously admit that my partner is somewhat helpful despite both of us having relatively busy jobs. So, what am I griping about when my partner and I can share the housework or just outsource it?

Well, three years ago, my partner and I decided that it was high time that we got a place for ourselves after a year of living with my parents. We convinced ourselves that buying a home made financial sense.

What we did not consider was the fact that both of us were supporting our parents entirely, which means paying for their living expenses on top of our own. In essence, we were so enamoured by the idea of owning our own home that we were certain we could manage the expenses of three households.

Clearly, things did not go as planned. Ever since we made that decision, it has felt like Mercury is in retrograde just about every month.

For instance, we have lost quite a bit of equity in our home since we bought our apartment in 2016 as the property landscape has been rather tepid. Also, the subsequent years have been peppered with a series of unfortunate events, which continued to bleed us dry.

It does not help that it has been drilled into me that if I am able-bodied, then I should be able to do my own housework. I have always felt a pang of guilt at the thought of passing on to someone else such unpleasant tasks, despite being able to pay for it. Hiring help has always been viewed as a luxury.

While I thought I was saving money by not outsourcing the housework, I was stress-spending on things I did not need. Talk about being penny wise and pound foolish.

As dreadful as it is, housework needs to be done. But the unending repetition of the thankless tasks was getting to me. “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: The clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, published in 1949.

At one point, things got really overwhelming as I was rushing to meet multiple deadlines at work and juggling several other responsibilities. So, for the sake of family harmony and my sanity, I recently decided to outsource my housework for the first time. I realise that it is a privilege few enjoy. Just once, I told myself.

I won’t lie, having that extra few hours brought utter joy. There is just something calming about the sight of a spotless home. The smell of eucalyptus oil wafting from the freshly mopped floor lifted my awful mood instantly. Suddenly, all that frustration and pent-up feelings seemed trivial. There I was, back to being a sensible adult again.

That episode also got me intrigued about the extent to which some people are affected by the stress of housework. It turns out that I am not alone. Harvard Business School scholar Ashley Whillans — who studies whether subscribing to time-saving services could improve relationships — found that those who spent money on time-saving services (such as a cleaning service) reported increased happiness and well-being.

According to The New York Times, Whillans found that those who spent more money on time-saving services were more satisfied with their relationships, in part because they spent more quality time with their partners. Outsourcing housework you dislike could even save your marriage, says the article.

Time-related stress — having too little time to relax — is associated with reduced feelings of well-being and increased depression, according to Whillans. “Stress does not just affect our mood, it can also harm our health,” she says in the article.

However, she adds a caveat that there is a chance one could overdo the outsourcing. Spending too much on outsourcing housework could lead one to feel incapacitated, by not having the satisfaction that can come from doing basic things well yourself, regret for not saving the money, or even guilt.

I guess that too much of anything is bad after all. I am not entirely convinced that merely outsourcing housework could mend a broken relationship, but investing in good help that granted me some quality “me time” sure helped me through my fraught emotional state.