Given this, how do we maximize the happiness we get from our vacations? While we’re often tempted to put the trip on a credit card and pay it off months after the trip, we suggest a new strategy: pay now, and consume later. Imagine a vacation where you had to pay for every single bite of food you took, with a man standing next to you and making you fork over a dollar each bite. Not. Much. Fun. But when we pay for things up front, by the time they come around they actually feel free—because the pain of paying is so far in the past, we can truly enjoy the moment. And of course, paying up front also increases the likelihood that we will spend the time before the vacation daydreaming about it. Our employers might not be pleased, but that anticipation increases our happiness.
Cook: There are many people who earn a lot of money, but then have no time to enjoy it. How do you think about the trade-off between time and money, and what advice do you have for people as they plan the broad contours of their life?
Norton: One of the biggest mistakes we all make with our money is that we fail to use it in ways that maximize the amount of time we spend engaged in activities that make us happy. Instead, we often accidentally use money in ways that seem like they will make us happy, but instead doom us to unhappy time.
Take buying a nice house in the suburbs. It seems like a great idea. In fact most Americans see owning a house as a key part of living the American dream. And when you buy a house in the ‘burbs, you’re thinking of all the family barbecues you’ll have on the lawn. But what you’re not thinking enough about is the fact that you’ve just doomed yourself to a two-hour commute—in heavy traffic—every day for the rest of your life. Would having a large house be enough to make you happy at the end of a long day when you’d spent two hours in standstill traffic? Our guess is, not so much. And so in general, thinking about how every purchase you make is going to affect your time allows us to spend money in ways that buy us happier time.
Cook: OK, talk to me about Sarah Silverman.
Norton: Sarah Silverman is a personal hero of ours, not just because she’s talented and hilarious, but because her philosophy of comedy contains nuggets of wisdom that we all can apply to our own happiness.
Silverman loves, loves, loves one kind of joke over all others: fart jokes. As a result, rather than get sick and tired of the thing she loves, she demands that her writers use fart jokes sparingly. This way, when one comes up, it feels like a treat instead of like a routine.
Aside from fart jokes, a large body of research suggests the value of what we call “Make it a Treat.” By limiting our access to certain products, we enhance our consumption greatly once we encounter those products again. In one experiment of ours, some people were assigned to eat chocolate every day for a week; others were asked to abstain from chocolate. When they came back a week later, we gave them more chocolate to eat. Nobody hated the chocolate—it was chocolate, after all—but those who had given it up for the week enjoyed the chocolate much more than those who’d been allowed to eat chocolate the whole time.
Cook: What can you tell us about giving gifts to others?
Norton: We often think about giving gifts to others as increasing the happiness of the recipient. Again, think of kids opening their gifts on Christmas morning… Our research, however, shows that gift giving offers benefits to an unexpected group: the givers themselves. In experiments we’ve conducted in countries ranging from the United States to South Africa, from Canada to Uganda, we consistently find that spending money on other people—whether buying gifts for friends or donating to charity—provides people with much more happiness than spending that money on themselves.