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When More Isn't Better....It's Worse

Why more money probably won't make you happy - and what will.

Study after study has shown that wealth has surprisingly little effect on how happy you are. Most of us tend to think that if we just made a bit more money, we'd get more satisfaction out of life, or have a greater sense of well-being. But on the whole, this turns out not to be true. So why doesn't money make us happy? Recent research (which was also discussed by Psychology Today blogger Christopher Peterson) suggests that the answer lies, at least in part, in how wealthier people lose touch with their ability to savor life's pleasures.

Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences. When we focus on what we are doing in the moment, when we eagerly anticipate something or relish our memories of it, when we relive it by describing it to others, we are savoring - and in the process we are enhancing our own happiness.

Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, imaging the fun you'll have on an upcoming vacation (and leafing through your trip photos afterward), telling all your friends on Facebook about the hilarious movie you saw over the weekend - these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us.

Why, then, don't wealthier people savor, if it feels so good? It's obviously not for a lack of things to savor. The basic idea is that when you have the money to eat at fancy restaurants every night and buy designer clothes from chic boutiques, those experiences diminish the enjoyment you get out of the simpler, more every-day pleasures, like the smell of a steak sizzling on your backyard grill, or the bargain you got on the sweet little sundress from Target.

These new studies show that people who have higher incomes spend significantly less time savoring their experiences than their relatively poorer peers do. Interestingly, just being exposed to images of wealth can dampen your savoring skills! In one study, college students who had recently seen a photo of a stack of money spent far less time eating a bar of chocolate, gulping it down rather than relishing each bite, and displayed far fewer signs of enjoyment, than those students who hadn't seen the money. Just thinking about wealth can make us lose sight of the good things happening to us right now.

Part of the reason I found these studies so interesting is that they fit so well with some of my own experiences. A few weeks ago, my mother was visiting me in NYC, and we decided to treat ourselves to a special dinner at a particularly good restaurant in Little Italy. We got ourselves all dolled-up for the occasion in dresses, jewelry, and high heels. (As the mother of two small, messy children, you'll typically find me in t-shirts, yoga pants, and running shoes.) I was even carrying my one designer handbag (which I bought at an outlet, and treat like it's made of gold). I remember thinking in the taxi on the way down to the restaurant how much fun it was to dress up for a change. And then it occurred to me that if I did this sort of thing all the time, I probably wouldn't enjoy it at all. I thought about what a shame that would be, and wondered if being rich could turn out to be, in some sense, surprisingly boring.

The good news is that you don't have to take a vow of poverty to be really happy and appreciate your experiences to their fullest - even rich people can set themselves the goal of savoring more, once they realize that they aren't doing enough of it. Really, no matter how much money we have (or how little), we could all do with a bit more savoring of life's simple pleasures.

The trick is actually remembering to do it - and that's where if-then planning comes in. I've written before about this strategy - if you want to remember to do something, decide when and where you are going to do it in advance. (People are, on average, 200-300% more likely to succeed if they use this form of planning). So, if you want to remember to savor, you could make plans like the following:

If I am eating, then I will remember to do it slowly and think about how my food tastes.

If I have a success at work, then I will tell my friends and family about what happened.

If I see something beautiful, then I will stop and soak it in, and feel fortunate to have seen it.

Make savoring life's little pleasures your goal, and create plans for how to inject more savoring into each day, and you will significantly increase your happiness and well-being much more than (or even despite) your growing riches. And if you're riches aren't actually growing, then savoring is still a great way to truly appreciate what you do have.

More from Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
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