The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Who Most Enjoy the Small Things in Life?

Wealthy people take less pleasure in the small things.

I'd like to live as a poor man with lots of money.
- Pablo Picasso

The relationship between money and happiness has long been of interest to those of us in the modern world, and in the past few years, positive psychologists have conducted a number of intriguing studies showing - if nothing else - that the link between them is complicated. I have written some blog entries about these studies, as have some of my Psychology Today colleagues.

Yet another intriguing line of research has just been published.

Researchers Jordi Quoidbach, Elizabeth W. Dunn, K.V. Petrides, and Mo├»ra Mikolajczak investigated whether wealthy people were less likely than others to savor small pleasures. As you might imagine, given that I am writing about this research, the answer to this question is an interesting yes. Wealthy people apparently take less pleasure in the small things in life. Is this because they already have the big things? I'll return to what this finding might mean, but first let me describe the research. Two studies were done.

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The first study used a mixed-methods procedure: survey and laboratory. Adult research participants (from Belgium) filled out standard surveys assessing their income, their disposition to savor positive emotions, and their overall happiness. Half of the participants were primed by exposure to a photo of euros; the other half were not. In one set of analyses, wealth (income) negatively predicted scores on the savoring measure, and so did exposure to the money prime. In another set of analyses, the statistical link between income and happiness was weakened when the tendency to savor was taken into account.

The second study again primed adult participants (from Canada) with a picture of money or not, and then asked them to eat a chocolate bar. Ratings were made of how long it took participants to eat the chocolate (presumably, a longer time meant more savoring) as well as how much they appeared to enjoy the chocolate. Because women spent more time eating the chocolate, gender was controlled in the statistical analyses. Exposure to money reduced both eating time and the observed enjoyment.

Smiley Face Money

The researchers concluded that a simple reminder of wealth undermined participants' ability to savor the small things in life, like a chocolate bar.

Can we quibble with these studies? Absolutely. Psychological Science, the high-impact journal in which this paper was published, often privileges "oh my goodness" studies with their share of loose ends.

In the first study by Quoidbach and colleagues, I wondered about confounds like age and experience with savoring. And in the second study, along these lines, I wondered about the unidentified "chocolate bar" the research participants ate. As my own income has increased over the years, I have discovered designer chocolate bars - those with flavors of chili peppers, sea salt, or wasabi. Oh my! I still eat Hershey Bars and on occasion scarf down half a pound of M&Ms in a single sitting, but that's all about the sugar rush. Can I savor the "good" chocolate? You better believe it.

But let's take the results of these studies at face value. What does it mean - for sake of argument - that those with money don't appreciate the smaller things, like a Hershey bar? Lots of things. It means they have habituated to the smaller pleasures of life, which I suspect are the more numerous ones. It means that their happiness is likely attenuated unless they always spend top dollar. It means that they don't understand other people and what satisfies them. And it means that their quest for the good life will be ongoing and ultimately frustrating.

The Bible tells us that it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). To this perhaps we should add that the rich may not even enjoy their time here on earth, at least when their wealth is salient to them..

Reference

Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E. W., Petrides, K. V., & Mikolajczak, M. (2010). Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychological Science.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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