Wise Shopping

Positive psychology, a relatively new academic sub-discipline, intrigues me.  Founded by psychologists who felt their field had become too focused on dysfunction, positive psychologists study “the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” 

In 2006, Dan Gilbert, a positive psych prof at Harvard, published a bestseller titled “Stumbling on Happiness.”  Referred to by some as Doctor Happiness, he was interviewed by a New York Times journalist recently.  Here’s an excerpt:

Q. As the author of a best seller about happiness, do you have any advice on how people can achieve it?

A. I’m not Dr. Phil.  We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.  We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy—money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.  Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. So if you have “x” amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or an object. One reason for this is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects usually aren’t.

Q. Have you just expressed a very anti-American idea?

A. Oh, you can spend lots of money on experiences. People think a car will last and that’s why it will bring you happiness. But it doesn’t. It gets old and decays. But experiences don’t. You’ll “always have Paris” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No. Today, I’m going to Dallas to meet my wife and I’m flying first class, which is ridiculously expensive. But the experience will be far more delightful than a new suit. Another way I follow what I’ve learned from data is that I don’t chase dollars now that I have enough of them, because I know that it will take a very large amount of money to increase my happiness by a small amount.  You couldn’t pay me $100,000 to miss a play date with my granddaughters. And that’s not because I’m rich. That’s because I know that a hundred grand won’t make me as happy as nurturing my relationship with my granddaughters will.

Q. So you hold with the notion that “money can’t buy you happiness”?

A. I wouldn’t say that. The data says that with the poor, a little money can buy a lot of happiness. If you’re rich, a lot of money can buy you a little more happiness. But in both cases, money does it.

Gilbert’s responses interest me on several levels.  I haven’t done the scientific research he has, but my life experience tells me the same thing—friendship and community consistently prove more gratifying than money and material goods.  One would think money would free people up to spend more time with friends and family, but Gilbert points out Americans tend to sacrifice social relations to get money.

Americans’ tendency to sacrifice social relations to get money brings to mind a unique feature of Norway’s social welfare system.  In Norway (top income tax rate of 45%), each June, the government gives every taxpayer 12.5% of their salary from the previous calendar year for a July or August vacation. 

If your government did that, what would you do with your 12.5% vacation bonus?  Nearly all Norwegians use their vacation bonus to take extended vacations.  Major businesses completely shut down for up to three weeks.  Even the court system closes and all cases are postponed. 

In the United States, some of my friends say they can’t take even weeklong vacations because they would be buried under voice-mails and emails when they return and they’ve convinced themselves they can’t afford to make less money.  It would be naïve of me to think I’m unaffected by my friends’ choices and actions.  Hypothetically, no matter how high a priority friendship and community are to me, if all of my friends work all of the time, my friendship/community potential will be severely limited.  

Why are Americans prone to sacrifice social relations to get money?  Are we products of an advertising industry and national culture that makes happiness more elusive?

Gilbert’s point that experiences contribute more to happiness than durable goods also intrigues me.  Intellectually, I understand his argument, but I think about that continuum differently.  With his Harvard salary and book royalties, he’s probably far wealthier than me, but even compensating for that, I can’t quite wrap my head around his “flying first class” example.  I think it’s a stretch to compare flying first class with a week in Paris.  My question is why pay four times a regular ticket price for two to four of hours of relative comfort and service when no one says weeks, months, or years later, “Remember how comfortable and pleasant that Boston-Dallas flight was back in 08?”  Just like the hotel rooms we stay in for one night, we tend to forget both good and bad flights.  Is a $500 hotel room five times as nice as a $100 one?

And if for the poor, “a little money can buy a lot of happiness,” shouldn’t increased philanthropy factor into the “first class” decision-making process?  Don’t Gilbert and others, who are happy, like myself, have a moral responsibility to help the poor experience more security and happiness in their lives?

Related to that, I don’t accept Gilbert’s expensive suit argument because the suit shouldn’t get old and decay.  It might fall out of style, but setting that aside, I would think the suit would be a more lasting and gratifying purchase than a first class ticket, especially if it’s worn to social gatherings.  My personal “durable good philosophy” is the more I use the good, the more I’m willing to pay for it.  Therefore, I have no problem paying a premium for an Apple laptop, a nice mattress, and a quality road bike. 

Despite those differences, a closer reading of Gilbert’s second answer helps me better understand his argument and makes me think he has a better grip on this subject than me.  In my mind, the most profound thing he says is, “I don’t chase dollars now that I have enough of them.”  I wonder, why do so many wealthy people continue to chase dollars when positive psychologists suggest it takes very large amounts of it to increase happiness by small amounts?  Why do we sacrifice social relations for money?  Is it because we’re irrational?

Even though you shouldn’t waste your time looking for me in first class and you shouldn’t offer me $100k to miss a family function without having the suitcase of cash in hand, I aspire to be more like Gilbert.  I want to avoid mindlessly chasing dollars and instead embrace being a husband, father, educator, and friend. 

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