The next time you’re in line at Starbucks, think about buying someone else a coffee instead of snagging one for yourself. Or, if you can’t bear to go coffee-less, at least consider buying a gift coffee for a friend in addition to the one you’ll gulp down.
Cook: Are there any lessons you've applied from this research to your own life?
Norton: Behavioral scientists have studied how people fail to consider what are called “opportunity costs.” Simply put, anything we buy means we are giving up something else. But we don’t often think of our spending this way. When we are deciding between a stereo that costs $1,000 and one that costs $1,100, we focus almost exclusively on which stereo we like better. We don’t naturally frame the decision as a choice between the $1,100 stereo or the $1,000 stereo plus $100 worth of new music. Put this way, the $1,000 stereo seems amazingly attractive.
It’s a bit the same with money and happiness. We get stuck in thinking that we need to have a house, a car, a flat-screen television to be happy, and so we spend nearly all of our money on these possessions. I try to ask myself before I make any purchase: What else could I be doing with this money? Am I really using this in the best way to maximize my happiness? If not, and this happens with alarming frequency, I put my wallet away.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.