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The self-indulgence that high incomes enable actually diminishes happiness.

I must be prescient. The day after I posted the suggestion that the super-wealthy go shopping for the less fortunate, a newspaper article announced that this would actually make them happy. Who knew?

The opinion was written by the authors of a forthcoming book called Happy Money: The Science of Spending. Elizabeth Dunn is associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton is associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Their research was focused on people in general, not just the super-wealthy; and a number of the findings were very reassuring. The most important was that what we do with money has a lot more to do with happiness than how much we have.

According to research performed at Princeton University, household income of about $75,000 is the point at which the wellbeing provided by money begins to plateau. Beyond that point, higher income apparently has little effect on daily mood.

Dunn and Norton also cite another amazing finding: The self-indulgence that high incomes enable actually diminishes happiness. In fact, pleasure in simple things–chocolate for example–is increased by a bit of self-deprivation. If we insist on spending money on ourselves, we are apparently best served by investing in experiences, as in vacations.

However, the authors designed research of their own that revealed the special benefit of the unselfish use of money. In one study, participants were each given a $20 bill. Some were told to buy something for themselves by the end of the day. Others were told to spend it on someone else. The results weren’t even close; the ones who bought for others were happier.

You may be wondering if the outcome would have been the same if everyone had had to earn the money first. Maybe things would get a bit weird. And I also wondered about their research with toddlers. The children were given goldfish instead of money. Those who gave goldfish to their new friend, a monkey puppet, were happiest. I am thinking that the toddlers knew the monkey puppet wouldn’t eat the goldfish.

Oh, well. The findings are hopeful nevertheless, and a couple of recent news items do seem to confirm the soul-satisfying use of wealth. One was about three couples in Washington, D.C., who donated $1.1 million to a fund to help veterans, active duty troops, and their families. None of the donors’ children had had to serve in the military, and they were inspired to compensate.

They believe that the affluent have a moral obligation to make military service more equitable. A donation to the fund, which the founders hope will reach $30 million, is imagined as an expression of gratitude for being spared the anxiety of having a loved one in a war zone. The three couples were clearly enormously excited about their idea.

And today there was an article about Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation spearheading a campaign to make contraception available to an additional 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries. It will enable girls to postpone childbearing until they are ready and women to plan for only the number of children they know they can provide for. Just imagine the gratitude and the way lives will be improved.

Clearly, wealth can be the source of great happiness if one forgoes self-indulgence and finds creative ways to use it for the common good. That would be a fun challenge. However, the rest of us will just have to make do with a larger understanding of the potential of “shopping therapy.” Now where did I put my purse?

 

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