This Is What People Would Pay to Avoid Sadness or Feel Love

Fascinating new research puts a monetary value on our emotions.

Posted Aug 25, 2016

“What I wouldn’t give for a moment of peace and calm.” 

This was the thought I had a few days ago after a particularly hectic schedule of running errands, managing my business, and parenting my four-and-a-half month old. Work and life pressures are intense for all of us and we are now a culture that is “addicted to busy.” 

Ruslan Guzov/Shutterstock
Source: Ruslan Guzov/Shutterstock

Reflect on your life for a moment and think about how much you would pay to avoid feeling embarrassed at work, or to avoid feeling guilty for missing your daughter’s recital for a business meeting. How much is that hour of calm worth to you? A recent study examined these questions by creating a value-based ranking of emotions using a willingness to pay approach.

Your balance of positive and negative emotions is an important influence on your subjective well-being—the way you think and feel about life. But is it better for well-being to pursue positive emotions or avoid negative ones? The results from a series of studies across cultures are mixed: One study of college students across 40 countries showed that positive emotions are a stronger influence on well-being than negative emotions. In some cultures, each negative event had nearly twice the impact on well-being as each positive event. Other studies show that positive and negative emotions had roughly the same impact on well-being.   

Researchers wondered what people would do to achieve their most desired emotions: Would they be willing to spend time, effort, and money to pursue or avoid those emotions? To answer that question, researchers developed a value-based ranking of different emotions by having people assign hypothetical values to them. Participants in two separate studies, in two different cultures, were asked to state the amount they would pay to experience a range of positive emotions —or to avoid certain negative emotions. They allocated a value after being asked the following question: 

“Think of a specific time in your life you were very ______ [insert the emotion]. How much would you be willing to pay to re-create (or avoid) this feeling for one hour?”

Here is how the research subjects spent their dollars*:

  • $44.30 to experience calm
  • $79.07 to experience happiness
  • $92.81 to avoid sadness
  • $99.82 to avoid embarrassment
  • $106.27 to avoid regret

Only one emotion was more valuable than avoiding regret, and that was love, which was worth $113.56 to the study participants. 

While human beings may spend a lot of time and energy (and hypothetical dollars) avoiding negative emotions, it appears that the bottom line is that we just want to feel loved. Love was also the most valuable emotion cited in the first study as well.

It would be interesting to extend these studies beyond cultural comparisons to look at differences among generations and life stages. When I was a young lawyer, I could have cared less about calmness because I was driven to work lots of hours and make my mark. Today, I would pay much more. And I would guess that no matter how old you are, you would pay a great deal to avoid regret.

How would you allocate your emotional dollars?

* The study done by Hi Po Bobo Lau and her team collected willingness-to-pay data from two different cultures. The first study involved a group of British participants and the second, a group of Chinese participants from Hong Kong. I used the numbers from the second study.

For strategies, tips, and stories about how to build your stress resilience, download my -book, Addicted to Busy, and connect with me here.