Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

If You're Happy and You Know It Check Your Text

Intensive happiness reporting through mobile technology may be aversive.

Money and Happiness
I have been asking people to tell me about their happiness since 2003. It is a fun topic to talk about; sometimes I find that people don’t often think much about their own well-being. However, there was one question that a number of people asked me that I didn’t have an answer for: “is thinking about my happiness actually good for me?” In other words, should you constantly be thinking if you are happy or not. Until recently, I would always say “I don’t know.”

That was, until a recent study examined this issue.

In a fascinating study, Effects of Intensive Mobile Happiness Reporting in Daily Life, Tamlin Conner and Katie Reid asked people to rate their happiness 1, 3, or 6 times a day. They concluded that people with a pre-disposition to depression felt less happy as a result of reporting their happiness compared to individuals with no pre-disposition to depression, who felt happier as a result of reporting on their happiness. Thus, using mobile technology to track one's mood may actually affect individuals' moods over time.

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Why is this?

It is possible that individuals without a pre-disposition to depression felt that the daily updates were a positive interaction and they expected positive feedback. Whereas people with a pre-disposition to depression, the text message updates increased their self-awareness, which was already high, and had a negative effect on their self-evaluation of their happiness.

So what's the takeaway? Using mobile technology to evaluate your mood may actually increase your happiness overall--but only if you are not pre-disposed to depression.

This also made me think of the many websites that provide people with personalized feedback about thier attitudes, behaviors, and emotions. Specifically, I helped co-found a website with a variety of online quizzes aimed at helping people learn more about themself as an individual and as a consumer. When people see a feedback page, they learn more about their personality and values, as well as how their decisions as a consumer are impacting their happiness in the short- and long-term.  

For example, it turns out that living in the moment may make us feel happier in the short-term but may negatively impact our finances in the future, causing less happiness or satisfaction in the long-term. So when people take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory or the Material Values Scale from Beyond the Purchase they learn how their time perspectives affect their decisions. We tell people how living in the moment doesn’t always translate into greater happiness in the long-term because of its financial impact. Hey, if it’s a carpe diem perspective that’s driving your daily actions, you may feel more highs but the impact on your finances may cause more lows down the road. In addition, when a person takes the experiential buying survey we provide ways for them to improve their ROI in consumer spending so they get more satisfaction and happiness out of their purchasing.

I have told people that instead of going to see an expensive financial planner, quizzes such as these will help them understand what is impacting their consumer behaviors. I have argued that these tools are a great way to learn more about yourself while also empowering you to use your spending power to enhance your happiness.

But, the results by Conner and Reid have challenge me a bit. It might be that self-awareness only has a positive impact on some people. I am left to wonder how the quantified self movement impacts people who are already depressed. 

In today's highly networked world of multiple mobile applications and a perpetual on-line mode of living, you can use technology like Beyond the Purchase to gain self-awareness, which, I hope, helps you to make buying choices that improve your overall happiness -- for your lifetime, not just for today. However, in the future I want to examine how our feedback has an impact on all people's happiness.

Kristen Gramigna is Chief Marketing Officer for BluePay, a merchant service provider, contributed significantly to this blog entry. She brings more than 15 years of experience in the bankcard industry in direct sales, sales management, and marketing to the company and also serves on its Board of Directors.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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