Researchers remain fascinated by the relationship between money and happiness. Perhaps it’s because of the observation that money alone doesn’t appear to “buy” happiness, unless you give it away or spend it for experiences more than for material things.
A new study out last week (Quoidbach et al., 2010) suggests that money’s effects on our well being and happiness may be even more subtle than previously realized. Simply seeing a picture of money — which appears to prime our brains, increasing the concept of money at a level below awareness — seems to impede our ability to enjoy life’s little pleasures.
How did the researchers arrive at such a stunning conclusion?
The researchers conducted two experiments in order to test their hypotheses about the effects of money on our ability to savor an experience.
In the first experiment, researchers recruited 351 adults who were employees at the University of Liège in Belgium. Subjects were divided into two groups to answer a set of questionnaires. In the experimental group, a stack of euro bills was displayed in a photograph, while in the control group the photograph was blurred beyond recognition. The questionnaires asked about income, happiness, and desire for wealth.
The researchers found that both the subjects who had higher incomes as well as those who were primed by the photograph of the stack of euro bills reported a significantly lower ability to savor positive emotions than did volunteers who did not have as much money or were in the control condition. The researchers suggest that this demonstrates that “wealth may fail to deliver the happiness one might expect because of its detrimental consequences for savoring.”
In a nutshell — wealth reduces our ability to savor.
In a separate experiment conducted at the University of British Columbia with 40 volunteers, the researchers set out to see if they could replicate and extend the previous experiment’s findings:
Participants completed a brief questionnaire that requested their demographic information and assessed their attitudes toward chocolate. The questionnaire was presented to each participant in a binder, and the adjacent page showed materials from an “unrelated study,” including a picture of Canadian money or a neutral photo. Next, participants were instructed to eat a piece of chocolate and, when ready, to complete a brief follow-up questionnaire.
Hidden observers using stopwatches measured the time each participant took to eat the chocolate. These observers also rated the extent of positive emotions each subject displayed while eating the chocolate.
The researchers found that females spend significantly more time savoring the chocolate than males did. Not surprising. So they had to tease out the gender variables in the data and then found that the subjects who saw a picture of money ate chocolate faster (i.e., did not savor the experience). These subjects also exhibited less enjoyment of it than did volunteers who viewed a neutral picture.
I’ll let the researchers summarize their own findings:
Taken together, our findings provide evidence for the provocative and intuitively appealing — yet previously untested — notion that having access to the best things in life may actually undermine one’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures.
Moving beyond past theorizing, 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.
Intriguing. I’m not certain what action item we can take away from this, though, since our knowledge already seems to impact our ability to enjoy life’s smaller pleasures.
Perhaps we need to mindfully and consciously remove “money” from the equation of our lives altogether. The less we think about it — even unconsciously — the more likely we may be able to more fully enjoy life’s little pleasures.
Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E.W., Petrides, K.V., & Mikolajczak, M. (2010). Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away: The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610371963.