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.”
Image from Muffet on Flickr
More on happiness or money:
- Fake and counterfeit goods promote unethical behaviour
- Travels with dopamine – the chemical that affects how much pleasure we expect
- The peril of positive thinking – why positive messages hurt people with low self-esteem
- To predict what will make you happy, ask a stranger rather than guessing yourself
- Money can buy happiness… if you spend it on other people