If money doesn’t bring happiness, then why do people behave as though it does?
It seems only natural that happiness should flow from having more money. Even if they don’t admit it, people still behave as though it were true. More money means you can have what you want and do what you want. The house you dream of? It’s yours. The new car you desire? Here are the keys. The freedom to enjoy your favourite pastimes? Here’s your racket, the court is down there, just past the pool.
So the puzzle is this: why do social scientists consistently find only moderate relationships between having more money and being happy? Some have even suggested that this moderate connection might be exaggerated. In reality money might have very little to do with happiness at all.
Most puzzling, though, is that people often seem aware at some level that money won’t make them happy. And yet they continue to work away earning money they don’t objectively need.
First, though, let’s look at the three reasons money doesn’t make us happy:
- It’s relative income that’s important. As I’ve noted previously, money is relative. It turns out we don’t mind so much about our actual level of income, so long as we’re earning more than other people around us. Unfortunately as we earn more money we’re likely to be surrounded by richer people so we often end up failing to take advantage of the positive comparison.
- Material goods don’t make us happy. Acquiring things like houses and cars only have a transient effect on happiness. People’s desires for material possessions crank up at the same, or greater rate, than their salaries. Again, this means that despite considerably more luxurious possessions, people end up no happier. There’s even evidence that materialism make us less happy.
- People don’t shift to enjoyable activities when they are rich. People who earn more money don’t spend their time enjoying themselves, they spend their time at work, in activities likely to cause them more stress and tension. This may be because of ‘the focusing illusion’. When people think about earning more money they probably imagine they would use the money on recreational activities. In fact, to earn the money, they have to spend more time at work, and commuting to and from work.
The focusing illusion
These three reasons naturally raise the question of why psychological findings are so out of step with people’s everyday experience. Surely if money doesn’t lead to happiness, most people would have worked that out by now. So why do people still chase the mighty dollar/pound/yen like their lives depended on it?
People with more money and status are just more satisfied with their lives, not happier.Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and colleagues put forward the idea that the reason people continue to think money makes them happier is that chasing it leads to conventional achievements (Kahneman et al., 2006). Conventional achievements include things like getting that coveted promotion or being able to afford that big house – in other words things that say loud and clear: hear I am and this is what I can do.
So, when people ask themselves whether money brings happiness, they immediately think of the big promotion and the big house. They conclude that because they have these things, they must be happy. In fact, people with more money and status are just more satisfied with their lives, not happier (before you scoff at this think about whether you’d rather be satisfied or happy).
But how do we know people aren’t happier with more money? Well, psychologists have a trick up their sleeves. That trick is called moment-by-moment sampling. The conventional way of asking people about their happiness is using an overall measure. There’s evidence that this is inaccurate and ends up tapping satisfaction more than happiness. Instead psychologists have started asking people how they’re feeling many times each day, in that precise moment, then adding up these reports.
Higher earners were more likely to experience intense negative emotions and greater arousal during the day.In one example of this type of research 374 workers at 10 different sites in a variety of different jobs were asked how happy they were every 25 minutes over a whole workday (Schnall et al., 1998). The correlation between happiness and income was so tiny, it wasn’t statistically significant. Worse, higher earners were more likely to experience intense negative emotions and greater arousal during the day. These types of findings have also been seen in other studies on how earnings affect happiness.
It appears, then, that the focusing illusion might partly explain why we think money makes us happy, when actually it doesn’t. This explanation, though, only goes so far. This is because many people know that a more high-powered job means more stress, and perhaps even understand that it won’t make them happier, and yet they will still choose the money and the high-powered job. Why? To answer this question we need to zoom out from psychology to social theory.
No alternative to chasing money?
The question that Professor Barry Schwartz asks is why people focus on money to the exclusion of those things that are proven to increase happiness (Schwartz, 2007). Things like doing work that is meaningful to us or improving our social relations. The sad answer that Schwartz gives is that people do not see any alternatives. Everyone knows that it all comes down to money, and to say otherwise is to announce your naivety.
Where are the messages telling us that it’s OK not to go all out for cash money? Barely audible.Sure, you don’t have to live your life as though you worshipped the acquisition of money, but almost everything tells us we should do. Television, billboards, newspapers, other people: they’re all screaming at us to get money. The effect of these messages is to ‘crowd out’ any other ideas we might have about how to live our lives.
Of course there are alternatives, but where are the role-models for these alternatives? Few and far between. Where are the messages telling us that it’s OK not to go all out for cash money? Barely audible.
Money and happiness in a nutshell
So we end up with this: money doesn’t make us happy on a day-to-day basis. We are, though, bombarded by messages telling us that we should value money and seek it out. So, like good members of society, we follow the convention.
What will make you feel happy right now?Acquiring money and status makes us feel satisfied with life. Through the ‘focusing illusion’ we convince ourselves that satisfaction equals happiness. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Even though we appear to have everything, we are left feeling that something is missing, but are unable to identify what that thing is.
That thing is simply this: feeling happy. Right now. In the moment.
What will make you feel happy right now?
[Image credit: DryIcons]
Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2006). Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion. Science, 312, 1908-1910.
Schnall, P., Landsbergis, P., Belkic, K., Warren, K., Schwartz, J., & Pickering, T. (1998). Findings In The Cornell University Ambulatory Blood Pressure Worksite Study: A Review. Psychosomatic Medicine, 60, 697.
→ Explore PsyBlog’s ebooks, all written by Dr Jeremy Dean:
Schwartz, B. (2007). There Must Be An Alternative. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 48-51.
We never get tired of thinking about happiness, do we? Life is so much nicer when you’re able to couple it with joy and gratitude.
We’ve published posts before about simple ways to be happy and retraining your brain for more gratitude, and Buffer’s CEO Joel has even shared his own daily to-do list for happiness. (There’s also our popular list of things to stop doing to be happier.)
Meanwhile, science continues to study happiness, finding ever more specific and idiosyncratic ways we can bring just a bit more of this elusive quality into our lives.
I love keeping an eye on these studies, and thought I would share the latest batch with you here to see if any of them might resonate with you and make you just a bit happier.
Here are 10 truly unique ways to be happier that you can start today!
1. Do Cultural Activities
Need a boost of joy? Trying seeing a play or heading to a museum.
A study that collected data on the activities, mood and health of 50,000 adults in Norway found that people who participated in more cultural activities reported higher happiness levels and lower anxiety and depression.
“Participation in receptive and creative cultural activities was significantly associated with good health, good satisfaction with life, low anxiety and depression scores in both genders,” the researchers write.
Curiously, men saw stronger benefits from receptive, or passive, cultural activities (like visiting museums, art exhibitions, concerts or theaters) while women more enjoyed active participation events (like club meetings, singing, outdoor activities and dance).
2. Keep A Diary: Rereading It Brings Joy
To learn to find more gratitude and joy in every day–not just special occasions, the boring days, too–try keeping a diary and re-reading it from time to time.
Researchers who did a variety of experiments involving keeping a journal discovered that “ordinary events came to be perceived as more extraordinary over time” as participants rediscovered them through their older writings.
In other words, simply writing down our ordinary, regular-day experiences is a way of banking up some happiness down the line, when the activities we describe could bring us unexpected joy.
3. Make Small Talk With A Stranger
Chatting up your barista or cashier? Good for your health!
Behavioral scientists gave a group of Chicago train commuters a $5 Starbucks gift card in exchange for striking up a conversation with a stranger during their ride. (While another group kept to themselves.)
Those who started conversations reported a more positive experience than those who had stayed quiet–even though they had predicted they would feel happier being solitary.
Another study saw similar results from giving Starbucks visitors a $5 gift card in exchange for having a “genuine interaction with the cashier.”
It seems that connecting with another person–no matter how briefly–increases our happiness.
4. But Have Meaningful Conversations, too
While positive small talk is great, more substantial conversations could up our happiness quotient even higher.
A study that tracked the conversations of 80 people for 4 days found that, in keeping with the small-talk study, higher well-being is associated with spending less time alone and more time talking to others.
But researchers also discovered that even higher well-being was associated with having less small talk and more substantive conversations.
“Together, the findings demonstrate that the happy life is social rather than solitary and conversationally deep rather than superficial,” the researchers write.
So dive deep in your conversations with friends and loved ones–it’s great for you.
5. Live In The Suburbs And Get Involved
This one seems to apply to the U.S. only, but I still found it quite interesting.
I would have guessed that city dwellers might be the most satisfied with where they live, but in a poll of 1,600 U.S. adults, the highest rate of happiness was found in the suburbs.
84 percent of suburbanites rated the communities where they live as overall excellent or good, compared to 75% of urban dwellers and 78% of rural residents.
Another study on city happiness found that residents are happier if they feel connected to their cities and neighborhoods and feel positively about the state of city services.
So wherever you live, make sure to get involved in your community for maximum happiness.
6. Listen To Sad Songs: They Provide Emotional Release
How could sad songs make us happy? And why do we seek them out?
That’s the question researchers wanted to answer with a survey of 722 people from around the world.
They discovered that there are four main reasons we take comfort in melancholy songs:
- They allow us to drift off into imagination
- They might provide us catharsis (emotion regulation)
- They allow us to relate to a common emotion (empathy), and
- They’re divorced from our actual problems (no “real-life” implications)
Researchers determined that “listening to sad music can lead to beneficial emotional effects such as regulation of negative emotion and mood as well as consolation.”
7. Spend Money On Experiences, Not Items
Here’s one that’s easy to understand but might be tougher to fix.
We know that spending money on life experiences will make us happier than spending money on material things (and it does!) but we can’t seem to stop ourselves from choosing the wrong option.
That’s what a study in The Journal of Positive Psychology found as they surveyed people before and after they made purchases.
The series of studies concluded that we’re more likely to spend on items than experiences because we can quantify them more easily and we want to see the best value for our dollars.
However, they found that the study subjects reported that after they spent, experiences brought them greater well-being and they considered them to be a better use of money.
So if we can keep that in mind, it’s possible to have our cake and eat it, too–definitely something to be happy about!
8. Set Tiny, Attainable Goals
It might be cliché, but making someone happy will make you happy, too.
And science says the more specific you can be with your goal, the better.
University of Houston professor Melanie Rudd found that a group of people who were told to make someone smile felt both happier and more confident that they’d actually achieved their goal than a similar group who’d been told simply to make someone else happy.
Even more interesting: In a separate experiment, people wrongly predicted that going for the bigger goal would make them happier.
“If you can meet or exceed your expectations of achieving a goal, you will be happier than if you fall short of your expectations,” Rudd explained.
9. Look at Beautiful Things
Could looking at a beautiful object make you feel happier?
The smartphone company HTC conducted a study that says yes.
In a series of laboratory and online experiments, volunteers looked at and interacted with objects that fell into three categories: beautiful, functional, or both beautiful and functional.
Their reactions uncovered some interesting findings, like:
- Well-designed objects that are both beautiful and functional trigger positive emotions like calmness and contentment, reducing negative feelings like anger and annoyance by almost a third.
- Purely beautiful objects (not functional) reduce negative emotions by 29%, increasing a sense of calmness and ease.
Objects that were both beautiful and functional created an especially high level of emotional arousal:
In general, people feel happier looking at and using beautiful objects that work well.
10. Eat More Fruits And Veggies
We know being healthier makes us happy, but can carrots give you purpose?
I have to admit I didn’t expect such a direct link between happiness and eating a lot of fruits and vegetables as researchers in New Zealand report.
Their 13-day study of 405 people who kept food diaries showed that people who ate more fruits and vegetables reported higher than average levels of curiosity, creativity, and positive emotions, as well as engagement, meaning, and purpose.
Even more interestingly, participants often scored higher on all of those scales on days when they ate more fruits and vegetables.
“These findings suggest that fruit and vegetable intake is related to other aspects of human flourishing, beyond just feeling happy,” writes the research team.
This article originally appeared on Buffer and is reprinted with permission.