Mon Apr 7th, 2008 at 02:48:59 PM EST
Research on money, spending, and happiness continues. The facts (as usual) undercut various prevailing ideologies. Consider the recent research report in the journal Science:
Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness
Can money buy happiness? A large body of cross-sectional survey research has demonstrated that income has a reliable, but surprisingly weak, effect on happiness within nations (1, 2, 3), particularly once basic needs are met (4). Indeed, although real incomes have surged dramatically in recent decades, happiness levels have remained largely flat within developed countries across time (5). One of the most intriguing explanations for this counterintuitive finding is that people often pour their increased wealth into pursuits that provide little in the way of lasting happiness, such as purchasing costly consumer goods (6). An emerging challenge, then, is to identify whether and how disposable income might be used to increase happiness.
Ironically, the potential for money to increase happiness may be subverted by the kinds of choices that thinking about money promotes; the mere thought of having money makes people less likely to help acquaintances, to donate to charity, or to choose to spend time with others (7), precisely the kinds of behaviors that are strongly associated with happiness (8-12). At the same time, although thinking about money may drive people away from prosocial behavior, money can also provide a powerful vehicle for accomplishing such prosocial goals. We suggest that using money in this fashion--investing income in others rather than oneself--may have measurable benefits for one's own happiness.
As an initial test of the relation between spending choices and happiness...
Experimental methodology, etc., follows, and then some meat:
Promoted by Migeru
Finally, despite the observable benefits of prosocial spending, our participants spent relatively little of their income on prosocial ends; participants in our national survey, for example, reported devoting more than 10 times as much money for personal as for prosocial spending each month. Although personal spending is of necessity likely to exceed prosocial spending for most North Americans, our findings suggest that very minor alterations in spending allocations--as little as $5 in our final study--may be sufficient to produce nontrivial gains in happiness on a given day. Why, then, don't people make these small changes? When we provided descriptions of the four experimental conditions from our final study to a new set of students at the same university (N = 109) and asked them to select the condition that would make them happiest, Fisher's Exact Tests revealed that participants were doubly wrong about the impact of money on happiness; we found that a significant majority thought that personal spending (n =69) would make them happier than prosocial spending (n = 40) (P < 0.01) and that $20 (n = 94) would make them happier than $5 (n =15) (P < 0.0005). Given that people appear to overlook the benefits of prosocial spending, policy interventions that promote prosocial spending--encouraging people to invest income in others rather than in themselves--may be worthwhile in the service of translating increased national wealth into increased national happiness.
Dunn et al., Science, pp. 1687 - 1688, 21 March 2008
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- More money = more happiness? True for the world-class poor, not so much for others. Score minus points for growth-obsessed brands of conservative ideology and for distribution-obsessed brands of progressive ideology.
- Uncompensated loss of wealth = loss of value? Not if the "uncompensated loss" is a gift. Score minus points for selfish brands of conservative ideology.
- Giving to the needy = giving to the needy, regardless of the mechanism? Not unless paying taxes promotes happiness among the taxpayers. Score minus points for welfare-state brands of progressive ideology.
- People know what makes people happy? No, people generally don't even know what makes them happy. Score minus points for just about everyone.
Perhaps reducing misery and fostering life satisfaction should get more attention, and income per se
less. (And then there's promoting community, opposing dangerous concentrations of power, not cooking the Earth, seeking a stable peace, and so on.)
But about that happiness/utility thing, a few foundational concepts have shifted and need to be reconsidered -- and the intellectual cathedrals that tower above them may need patches applied to a few minor cracks.