Happiness under a microscope: UBC helps lead a new scholarly focus on wellbeing

With the world gathered to admire those faster, better and stronger, many of us would assume that “richer” tops that list of desired traits.

New evidence from leading UBC happiness scholars, however, cautions against equating more money with more happiness. If anything, the truth may be closer to the sentiments of the late Notorious BIG in his hit rap song “Mo Money Mo Problems.”

Wealth can limit ability to savour life

In the first study of its kind, UBC psychology researcher Elizabeth Dunn discovered that wealth and even thinking about wealth robs a person of the ability to stay in the moment and reap enjoyment from life’s daily pleasures. The paper, “Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away: The Dual Effect of Wealth,” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

“While wealth opens doors to great experiences, it appears to undercut people’s ability to savour,” says Dunn, an assistant professor in the UBC Dept. of Psychology.

“We found that wealthier individuals reported lower ability to savour,” says lead author Jordi Quoidbach, a visiting PhD student from Belgium’s University of Liege working in Dunn’s lab. In addition to Dunn, study co-investigators are Dino Petrides, University College London, England, and Moira Mikolajczak, with the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium

The researchers recruited more than 350 working adults to answer questions about their ability to savour life in six different situations, among them finishing an important task or spending a romantic weekend away. Respondents were also asked about their level of happiness, desire for future wealth and current wealth. The study primed a number of participants’ thoughts toward money by displaying a photo of a large stack of bills in the questionnaire. Participants in the control group received a questionnaire with the same photo of money, but blurred beyond recognition.

In a related experiment on money and people’s savouring ability, the researchers timed how long respondents took to enjoy a piece of chocolate. Participants were told they were part of a taste test and given a questionnaire in a binder that primed their thoughts with a photo of money. Participants who received these binders with the money photo spent less time eating the chocolate. They showed lower levels of enjoyment than the control group whose binder contained no such photo.

Money misleads

A joint UBC and Harvard Business School study further illustrates how people overestimate the impact of income on life satisfaction. The researchers looked at nationally representative data from Americans across the income spectrum. Participants were asked to report their own happiness and to predict the happiness of others and themselves at 10 different income levels, from US$5,000 to US$1 million. They reported their predictions using a 0-10 scale where 0 equals the worst possible life overall and 10 equals the best possible life overall. The researchers then compared the participants’ predictions to existing data on happiness and income levels.

The study shows that participants accurately predicted happiness levels – approaching 7 and 8 – for people with household incomes of US$90,000 and above. However, participants were wide off the mark when it came to lower-income households. For example, they predicted a happiness rating of 4 for people with household incomes of US$25,000 when existing data suggest it is closer 6.

“There is a real but modest relationship between money and happiness,” says lead author Lara Aknin, a UBC PhD student working with Dunn, whose findings were published in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology. “But our studies show that adult Americans erroneously believe that earning less than the median household income is associated with severely diminished happiness.”

Aknin says such a false belief may lead many people to chase opportunities for increased wealth or forgo a reduction in income for increased free time to spend on themselves, family or other worthwhile endeavours.

On occasion money does buy happiness – when you share your wealth with others. In a study that appeared in Science last year, Dunn and her colleagues gave people $5 or $20 in the morning and asked them to spend it on themselves or other people by the end of the day. People who were asked to spend the money on others were happier at the end of the day.

The trust factor

For UBC economist John Helliwell, trust is a vital support for better lives.

“If employees are higher by one point on a 10-point scale in their assessment of the trustworthiness of their managers, the effect on their life satisfaction is equal to a pay increase of more than 30 per cent,” says Helliwell, who carried out the groundbreaking work with UBC graduate student Haifang Huang, now teaching at the University of Alberta.

Trust in multiple domains increases a person’s sense of well being even further, says Helliwell who is also the co-director of the Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

In a paper for the October 2009 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development World Forum in Busan, Korea, Helliwell and UBC economics graduate student Shun Wang used well-being data from the Gallup World Poll and the Canadian General Social Survey. Both of these surveys also asked respondents whether their wallets, if lost, would be returned to them if found by different individuals such as neighbours, police and strangers.

“Those who think their lost wallet would be returned if found by a neighbour or the police report an increase in subjective well-being similar to that associated with an increase of household income of about two-thirds,” says Helliwell.

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