A recently published Belgian study offers a bit of schadenfreude for everybody who’s struggling financially as we deal with the great recession:
Wealthy people, it seems, can’t savor everyday joys as much as the rest of us.
As the researchers themselves put it: “[H]aving access to the best things in life may actually undercut people’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures.”
But the study [PDF] contains a warning for all of us, non-rich included. The researchers also found that just thinking about money — whether you have much of it or not — can spoil your ability to savor positive experiences and emotions.
Many previous studies, of course, have found that although wealth can instill feelings of personal satisfaction, it doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, particularly if you’re already living in a wealthy society. Several explanations have been proposed for money’s weak impact on happiness, including the “keeping up with the Joneses” hypothesis — the idea that we’re never happy with what we have because there’s always somebody richer than us (or seemingly so).
This current study, however, tested — apparently for the first time — another possible explanation for why money doesn’t buy happiness: the “experience-stretching hypothesis.”
“According to this perspective,” write the study’s authors, “experiencing the best things in life — such as surfing Oahu’s famous North Shore or dining at Manhattan’s four-star restaurant Daniel — may actually mitigate the delight one experiences in response to the more mundane joys of life, such as sunny days, cold beers, and chocolate bars.”
In the first part of the two-part study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, 374 members of a university staff (from custodians to senior administrators) were asked to complete a questionnaire that measured, among other things, savoring ability (the ability to prolong and enhance positive emotions). “We found that participants’ wealth significantly predicted lower ability to savor positive emotion,” the researchers reported. (In the study, the highest category of wealth was an annual income of more 75,000 euros, or about $100,000.)
But it wasn’t just the higher-income people in the study who had difficulty prolonging their positive emotions. Participants in all income brackets who were surreptitiously shown a photograph of a large stack of money before filling out the questionnaire also had problems. In other words, even thinking about wealth impaired a person’s ability to prolong his or her positive thoughts.
For the second part of the study, the researchers asked participants to eat a bar of chocolate. (Participants were told they were participating in a study that was evaluating attitudes toward that candy.) Again, half the participants were surreptitiously shown a photograph of money before they were handed the chocolate; the others were shown the same photograph, but with the image blurred beyond recognition.
Remarkably, those participants who saw the clear image of the money subsequently spent less time, on average, eating the chocolate (32 seconds rather than 45 seconds). And when they filled out a questionnaire afterwards about how much they enjoyed the candy, those who had been exposed to the photograph of money reported less enjoyment (a drop from 5 to 3.6 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being maximum enjoyment).
(An amusing aside: The researchers had to control for gender because the women in the study spent much longer savoring chocolate than the men.)
“This research provides the first evidence that money interferes with people’s ability to savor positive emotions and experiences,” conclude the study’s authors. “… [T]he emotional benefits that money gives with one hand (i.e., access to pleasurable experiences), it takes away with the other by undercutting the ability to relish the small delights of daily living.”
Maybe it’s time to switch off CNBC, put down the Wall Street Journal — and savor a bar of Belgian chocolate.