Money is surprisingly bad at making us happy. Once we escape the trap of poverty, levels of wealth have an extremely modest impact on levels of happiness, especially in developed countries. Even worse, it appears that the richest nation in history – 21st century America – is slowly getting less pleased with life. (Or as the economists behind this recent analysis concluded: “In the United States, the [psychological] well-being of successive birth-cohorts has gradually fallen through time.”)
Needless to say, this data contradicts one of the central assumptions of modern society, which is that more money equals more pleasure. That’s why we work hard, fret about the stock market and save up for that expensive dinner/watch/phone/car/condo. We’ve been led to believe that dollars are delight in a fungible form.
But the statistical disconnect between money and happiness raises a fascinating question: Why doesn’t money make us happy? One intriguing answer comes from a new study by psychologists at the University of Liege, published in Psychological Science. The scientists explore the “experience-stretching hypothesis,” an idea first proposed by Daniel Gilbert. He explains “experience-stretching” with the following anecdote:
I’ve played the guitar for years, and I get very little pleasure from executing an endless repetition of three-chord blues. But when I first learned to play as a teenager, I would sit upstairs in my bedroom happily strumming those three chords until my parents banged on the ceiling…Doesn’t it seem reasonable to invoke the experience-stretching hypothesis and say that an experience that once brought me pleasure no longer does? A man who is given a drink of water after being lost in the Mojave Desert may at that moment rate his happiness as eight. A year later, the same drink might induce him to feel no better than a two.
What does experience-stretching have to do with money and happiness? The Liege psychologists propose that, because money allows us to enjoy the best things in life – we can stay at expensive hotels and eat exquisite sushi and buy the nicest gadgets – we actually decrease our ability to enjoy the mundane joys of everyday life. (Their list of such pleasures includes ”sunny days, cold beers, and chocolate bars”.) And since most of our joys are mundane – we can’t sleep at the Ritz every night – our ability to splurge actually backfires. We try to treat ourselves, but we end up spoiling ourselves.
The study itself is straightforward. The psychologists gathered 351 adult employees of the University of Liège, from custodial staff to senior administrators, for an online survey. (I should note that it remains unclear whether happiness and other aspects of well-being can be meaningfully measured with a multiple choice test. So caveats apply.) The scientists primed the subjects by showing them a stack of Euro bills before asking them a bunch of questions which attempted to capture their “savoring ability.” Here’s how the savoring test worked:
Participants are asked to imagine finishing an important task (contentment), spending a romantic weekend away (joy), or discovering an amazing waterfall while hiking (awe). Each scenario is followed by eight possible reactions, including the four savoring strategies referred to in the introduction (i.e., displaying positive emotions, staying present, anticipating or reminiscing about the event, and telling other people about the experience). Participants are required to select the response or responses that best characterize what their typical behavior in each situation would be, and receive 1 point for each savoring strategy selected.
Interestingly, the scientists found that people in the wealth condition – they’d been primed with all those Euros – had significantly lower savoring scores. This suggests that simply looking at money makes us less interested in relishing the minor pleasures of life. Furthermore, subjects who made more money in real life – the scientists asked all subjects for their monthly income – scored significantly lower on the savoring test. A subsequent experiment duplicated this effect among Canadian students, who spent less time savoring a chocolate bar after being shown a picture of Canadian dollars. The psychologists end on a bleak note:
Taken together, our findings provide evidence for the provocative notion that having access to the best things in life may actually undermine one’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures. Our research demonstrates that a simple reminder of wealth produces the same deleterious effects as actual wealth on an individual’s ability to savor, suggesting that perceived access to pleasurable experiences may be sufficient to impair everyday savoring. In other words, one need not actually visit the pyramids of Egypt or spend a week at the legendary Banff spas in Canada for one’s savoring ability to be impaired—simply knowing that these peak experiences are readily available may increase one’s tendency to take the small pleasures of daily life for granted.
This makes me think of the Amish. From a certain perspective, the Amish live without a lot of the stuff most of us consider essential. They don’t use cars, reject the Internet, avoid the mall, and prefer a quiet permanence to hefty bank accounts. The end result, however, is a happiness boom. When asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, the Amish are as satisfied with their lives as members of the Forbes 400. There are, of course, many ways to explain the contentment of the Amish. (The community has strong ties, plenty of religious faith and stable families, all of which reliably correlate with high levels of well-being.) But I can’t help wonder if part of their happiness is related to experience-stretching. They don’t fret about getting the latest iPhone, or eating at the posh new restaurant, or buying the au courant handbag. The end result, perhaps, is that the Amish are better able to enjoy what really matters, which is all the stuff money can’t buy.