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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Happiness
See Inside September / October 2010

Money Buys Unhappiness

Thinking about cash impairs the ability to savor experiences

“ ’Tis the gift to be simple,” the Shakers sing. Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks take vows of poverty. Why? A new study published online in May in Psychological Science offers a hint. Money—even the thought of it—reduces satisfaction from life’s simple pleasures.

Studies have shown that a person’s ability to savor experiences predicts their degree of happiness. Savoring is defined as the emotions of joy, awe, excitement and gratitude derived during an experience. Psychologist Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liège in Belgium and his colleagues divided 374 adults, ranging from custodians to senior administrators, into two randomly assigned groups. The first group was shown a picture of a stack of money; the control group was shown the same picture blurred beyond recognition. Then the participants were given psychological tests to measure their ability to savor pleasant experiences. The results showed that people who had been shown the money scored significantly lower.

A second test showed even more dramatically how the thought of cash spoils savoring. Participants were given a piece of chocolate after being shown a picture of money or a blurred photograph. Then an observer timed how long the person savored the morsel of chocolate. Women savored the chocolate longer than men, but regardless of gender, individuals shown the picture of money beforehand spent significantly less time savoring the chocolate—on average, 32 seconds versus 45 seconds.

In other words, what money gives with one hand—access to pleasurable experience—it takes away with the other by robbing people of the ability to appreciate simple joys. Think about that the next time you are considering splurging at an expensive restaurant when you could be heading off to a picnic with a bottle of wine, crusty French bread, tangy cheese and, for dessert, a bite of chocolate.

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