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.
Money has subtler benefits beyond the ability to buy lavish goods or luxurious services – it’s also a psychological and physical salve. According to research by Xinyue Zhou from Sun Yat-Sen University, handling money can soothe the sting of social rejection and appease the physical pain of hot water. Even bringing up the mere thought of money can have these effects.
Popularity matters to social animals like humans, who rely on each other for our wants and needs. Our dependence on each other makes it important to get along with our peers. But in many societies, money can bypass that need, allowing us to get our own way whether we’re liked or not. As such, Zhou and colleagues viewed money as a social resource, one that can substitute for popularity.
They reasoned that money should have a stronger allure for people who face social rejection, and that thoughts of profit should blunt the pain of isolation. Equally, thoughts of losing money should make the pain of exclusion more poignant as poorer people tend to be more dependent on others for their needs. And that’s exactly what they found through a series of six psychological experiments.
“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.” – Douglas Adams
In this pithy paragraph, the sorely missed Douglas Adams sums up a puzzling paradox of modern life – we often link happiness to money and the spending of it, even though both proverbs and psychological surveys suggest that the two are unrelated.
Across and within countries, income has an incredibly weak effect on happiness once people have enough to secure basic needs and standards of living. Once people are lifted out of abject poverty and thrown into the middle class, any extra earnings do little to improve their joie de vivre. Time trends tell a similar story; even developed countries that have enjoyed economic booms have seen plateauing levels of satisfaction.
I can’t get no… satisfcation
But a new study reveals that money can indeed buy happiness… if it’s spent on others. Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia wanted to see if there were ways of channelling the inevitable pursuit of money towards actually making people happier. Together with Lara Aknin and Michael Norton, she asked a representative group of 632 Americans to disclose their average monthly expenditure and to rate how happy they were.