Can Money Buy Happiness?

New research reveals that reminders of wealth impair our capacity to savor life’s little pleasures

By Sonja Lyubomirsky

Money can’t buy you love. Worshipping Mammon foments evil ways. Materialists are shallow and unhappy. The greenback finds itself in tough times these days. Whether it’s Wall Street bankers earning lavish multi-million-dollar bonuses or two-bit city managers in Los Angeles County bringing in higher salaries than President Obama the recessionary economic climate has helped spur outrage and revulsion at those of us collecting undeserved lucre. 

Wealthy people have a bad rep. Sure, there are philanthropists like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who have given billions of their net worth away and have made the world a better, healthier, safer place. But, sadly, they are an exception. American families who make over $300,000 a year donate to charity a mere 4 percent of their incomes. The statistic should not be surprising, as studies by University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her collaborators have shown that merely glimpsing dollar bills makes people less generous and approachable, and more egocentric.

Now come a new set of studies that reveal yet another toll that money takes. An international team of researchers led by Jordi Quoidbach report in the August 2010 issue of Psychological Science that, although wealth may grant us opportunities to purchase many things, it simultaneously impairs our ability to enjoy those things.

Their first study, conducted with adult employees of the University of Liège in Belgium showed that the wealthier the workers were, the less likely they were to display a strong capacity to savor positive experiences in their lives. Furthermore, simply being reminded of money (by being exposed to a picture of a huge stack of Euros) dampened their savoring ability.

Quoidbach and his colleagues’ second study was even cleverer. Participants aged 16 to 59 recruited on the University of British Columbia campus were entrusted with the not unpleasant task of tasting a piece of chocolate. Before accepting the chocolate, however, they were obliged to complete a brief questionnaire. For half of the participants, this questionnaire furtively included a page with a picture of Canadian money (allegedly for an unrelated experiment), and for the other half, it included a neutral picture.

Although the ostensibly irrelevant photo was unlikely to have elicited more than a cursory glance, it had a pronounced effect on the volunteers’ behavior. Those “primed,” or subconsciously reminded, of money ended up spending less time consuming the chocolate and were rated by observers as enjoying it less… Read More>>

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