The notion that money can’t buy happiness has, in recent years, been backed up by a lot of psychological research. But this confirmation of time-honored wisdom begs the question: Why the hell not? The wealthy have access to an array of pleasure-producing goods and experiences, so why are they no happier than the rest of us?
A team of psychologists has come up with a plausible answer, one that validates yet another piece of folk wisdom. Affluent individuals, and less-wealthy people with money on their minds, are less likely to slow down and savor the Snickers.
Writing in the journal Psychological Science, a research team led by Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liege and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia report money “impairs people’s ability to savor everyday positive emotions and experiences.” They conclude this negative effect can “undercut other emotional benefits provided by money.”
In other words, that rich guy undoubtedly gets a kick out of driving his Porsche to the beach. But once he meets you there, you’re more likely to get a genuine thrill out of the gorgeous sunset.
Quoidbach and his colleagues reached this conclusion after conducting two studies. In the first, 351 adult employees of the University of Liege (ranging from custodial staff to senior administrators) completed a survey in which they described their wealth, happiness and the way they react to positive experiences. At the outset of the experiment, half were exposed to a photograph of a large stack of currency.
“We found that participants’ wealth significantly predicted lower ability to savor positive emotions,” the researchers report. So, too, did the pictorial reminder of the concept of wealth: Those who were exposed to the image of money scored lower on the savoring questions than those who did not.
The second experiment featured 40 volunteers, who ostensibly participated in a taste-testing study featuring varieties of chocolate. All began by filling out a survey; in the process of doing so, half were exposed to a photograph of money.
As they consumed pieces of chocolate, the test subjects were surreptitiously observed by two researchers who used stopwatches to measure the time they spent savoring each treat. The researchers also evaluated how much joy the participants showed on their faces as they tasted the chocolate.
After controlling for gender (to no one’s surprise, the men ate more quickly) and overall attitudes toward chocolate, the researchers found those who had been exposed to the photo of cash “spent significantly less time eating the chocolate, and displayed significantly less enjoyment.”
“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,” the researchers write. Even a tantalizing hint of access to expensive pleasures — provided to study participants in the form of pictures of money — “may be sufficient to impair everyday savoring,” they note.
The scholars’ conclusion: When it comes to happiness, money gives with one hand — providing access to pleasurable experiences — but “takes away with the other, by undercutting the ability to relish the small delights of daily living.”
Which confirms the intuitive wisdom of the beggar Porgy, who sings in the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess:
I’ve got plenty of nothing
And nothing is plenty for me.
I got my girl
Got my song
Got heaven the whole day long.