Money weakens ability to savour life’s little pleasures

By Ed Yong | May 25, 2010 10:00 am


Today is Towel Day, where fans around the world celebrate the works of beloved author Douglas Adams, a master of witty prose and observational humour. Consider his description of money:

“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”

Adams was right to highlight the perceived link between money and happiness. Many people dream of the life they could lead if they won the lottery, a world of mansions, fine restaurants, and first-class travel. But few consider the costs. These fineries could lead to enjoyment overload, compromising our ability to savour life’s simpler pleasures, whether it’s a walk on a sunny day or the taste of a bar of chocolate. This idea of wealth as a double-edged sword is widely held and while it’s easy to suggest that it springs from jealousy, a new set of experiments supports the idea.

Jordi Quoidbach from the University of Liege showed that richer people aren’t as good as savouring everyday pleasures than their poorer counterparts. Even the mere thought of money can make us take mundane joys for granted. Normal people who were reminded about wealth spent less time appreciating a humble bar of chocolate and derived less enjoyment from it.

Quoidbach’s study helps to make sense of a trend in psychological research, where money has an incredibly weak effect on happiness. Once people have enough to buy basic needs and rise out of abject poverty, having extra cash has little bearing on their enjoyment of life. Perhaps this is because money both gives and takes away: it opens doors to new pleasures, while making delights that were already accessible seem less enticing. Obsessing over wealth is like being on a hedonic treadmill – continuously running to stay in the same emotional place.

To begin with, Quoidbach asked 351 university employees, from cleaners to senior staff, to complete a test that measures their ability to savour positive emotions. Each recruit was asked to put themselves in a detailed pleasant scenario, from finishing an important task to discovering an amazing waterfall on a hike. Afterwards, they were quizzed in detail about how they would react to the scenarios, to see how strongly they savoured the experiences.

Using other questionnaires, Quoidbach also assessed how happy they were, how much money it would take to live their dream life, how much money they earned and how much they had saved. And as a final twist, half of the questionnaires included picture of a large stack of euros, while the other half saw the same picture that had been blurred beyond recognition.

He found that the more money the recruits had, the worse they were at savouring their positive emotions. Of course, it’s possible that people who appreciate their lot in life are less eager to chase after wealth. But Quoidbach found that a person’s savouring ability was unrelated to their desire for money. And even suggesting the thought of money, by showing them the euro picture, had the same negative effect, dampening their to the happy imaginings.

Regardless, the recruits also tended to be slightly happier the more money they had. Other studies have found the same trend, but Quoidbach’s important result is the money would have had a far greater impact on the volunteers’ happiness were it not for its negative effect on their savouring ability.

Of course, there’s only so far you can take the results of the questionnaires. A more objective experiment would be better, and that’s exactly what Quoidbach did. He asked 40 students to volunteer for a taste test. They were given a binder that included a questionnaire about their attitudes toward chocolate. On the opposite page, marked as material for an unrelated study, was a picture of either money or a neutral object. Afterwards, all they had to do was eat a chocolate.

Two researchers kept an eye on them and not only timed their munching, but rated how much enjoyment they were showing. The results were clear – the recruits who saw the money took 32 seconds to eat the chocolate, significantly less than the 45 seconds spent by the others. And on average, their happiness rating, as judged by the observers, was 3.6 out of 7, compared to a higher score of 5 for their peers. (Incidentally, the observers didn’t know which group their subjects belonged to, and their scores strongly agreed with one another’s).

These studies are part of a growing body of research showing that the link between money and happiness is more complicated than we might imagine. Elizabeth Dunn, who also worked with Quoidback, has previously shown that money can buy happiness if it’s spent on others, but that having money reduces the odds that people will actually spend it in this way! Dunn has also found that money is better used to buy happiness if it’s spent on experiences rather than goods. And here we see that wealth can undercut the very happiness that it boosts.

In both experiments, a simple reminder of wealth undermined people’s ability to appreciate life’s little pleasures, be they imagined ones or the very physical joys of chocolate. That’s a striking result and Quoidbach explains it best himself. “One need not actually visit the pyramids of Egypt or spend a week at the legendary Banff spas in Canada for one’s savouring ability to be impaired,” he writes. “Simply knowing that these peak experiences are readily available may increase one’s tendency to take the small pleasures of daily life for granted.”

Reference: Psychological Science or here

Image from Muffet on Flickr

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Comments (13)

  1. Barbara Saunders

    The last paragraph struck me the most. I am one of those people who don’t care much about money. I’ve had peak experiences. I’ve also had some glamourous experiences. Any overlap has been incidental. Anyone, rich or poor, who believes that peak experiences have anything to do with the luxury of the surroundings is misguided as to what a peak experience is by definition.

  2. Julie

    I must be really poor cause theres nothing better than chocolate or a nice sunny day

  3. Dennis

    What a strange coincidence –
    Just about half an hour ago, I came home to find a package from Amazon at my doorstep.
    It contained 4 books that I had ordered, one of which is “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”.
    I decided to start that one first, out of the 4, because it’s the thinnest.
    I read the first couple of chapters, thoroughly pleased that I chose this book, and then put it down and opened up my laptop.
    I started going through my RSS headlines and clicked on this article.
    The first sentence raised my eyebrows.
    I had no idea there was such a thing as “Towel Day”, nor that I was inadvertently celebrating it.

  4. It does make one wonder about whether we’re really “helping” when we pour money into developing countries trying to ‘raise’ their standard of living. When my husband was in Kenya the slum dwellers he worked with radiated joy regardless of the circumstances. On the contrary, here in the Washington, DC area it seems that no matter how much money is poured into people’s communities, it is never enough for them to say they are now “happy.”

    There’s an interesting trend among the young (20-30) people to opt for jobs that ‘make a difference’ rather than ‘produce a lot of money.’ Perhaps they’ve started to understand that money and happiness are not the same thing.

  5. Zoe

    To enjoy a sunny day it’d have to be a weekend.

    My point: if I had more money I wouldn’t have to work in my bloody job (and no, it’s not the job itself – I just don’t like working for other people and according to their schedules) and I could enjoy a sunny day. With some chocolate.

    Somehow I never believe those studies…I’m not poor and I agree, a little more money isn’t going to make me happier. A lot more money, though, would allow me to do what I want (ie. not work for a boss). And I am sure I’d be happier than I am now.

  6. Zoe

    @3: Funny, I would always start with the thickest book :)

  7. Dionigi

    I too think that money would allow me to do what I want to do not what I need to do to survive.
    Remember that money does not give health but it gives a better class of doctor and all the medical benifits rich people tend to get better health care and don’t have to worry over whether they can afford the insurance or costs not covered.
    Money doesn’t bring love but you have a lot bigger group of people to choose from and a trophy wife.
    Poverty brings misery and a shorter life span.
    I would rather risk misery and be rich but do not spend all my time chasing money for monies sake, life is meant to be savoured.

  8. It would have been interesting for the study to see what type of background the participants had. Our underlying values create our beliefs and these in turn, create our reactions or responses to situations.

    In my experience many people that use money as a goal are doing this to prove something, and no matter what they accomplish they’re never happy.

    However, when a person pursues their passion and is happy in this pursuit, money often arrives easily. So money may not bring happiness, but happiness does bring abundance.

  9. Zoe

    I’ve thought about it some more. I do think there’s a level, middle class, where a bit of extra money really wont’ make a speck of difference in happiness. But if you were to get a whole lot more money – surely you’d be happier. Someone who comes into a sh*t load of money and doesn’t get happier must be an idiot. I know that’s not argument, but come on!

  10. Ed Yong

    Actually the psychological literature is very clear that (a) people greatly overestimate the effect that positive events will have on their happiness and (b) that people are awful at predicting what will make them happy. This is why experiments and actual data are important rather than using gut reactions or ‘common sense’. I’ve written more on this here and I’d recommend Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness for

  11. Doug Garant

    Ed, I love the choice of photo (“gelt” for Passover): it’s both money _and_ chocolate!

  12. Brian Too

    “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

    I forget who said that but it has stuck with me.

  13. Nathan Myers

    From Harvey: “‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”


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