The perils of ‘having it all’

It’s fair to say that Thurston Howell III doesn’t savor the little things in life. One of seven castaways on an uncharted Pacific island, the WASPy billionaire never stops scheming to get back to his money. While the others often seem content in their tropical paradise, Howell mostly likes to talk and dream about his assets, which include a coconut plantation, a railroad, an oil well, a diamond mine and all of Denver, Colorado. He never seems to understand that his wealth won’t buy him happiness on Gilligan’s Island.

Okay, so Gilligan’s Island isn’t real. I get that. But is it possible this old TV fantasy contained a grain of psychological truth? Can “having it all” undermine the ability to savor common, everyday joys? And if so, does wealth diminish pleasure enough that it trumps the plusses of having plenty of money?

An international team of scientists has been exploring these questions. Psychologist Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liege, Belgium, and his colleagues wondered if wealth, because it promises abundant pleasure, might actually weaken the internal sense of scarcity that makes small pleasures possible. They decided to test this idea in the lab.

They recruited a large group of university employees, ranging from deans to janitors. The idea was to get a range of incomes and financial comfort, which they did: Some of the volunteers had socked away 75,000 euros or more, while others had a mere 1,000 euros in savings. They gave all of these volunteers a test that uses vignettes to gauge positive emotions like pride and awe and contentment. For example, they might be asked to imagine going on a hike and discovering an amazing waterfall. Would they be visibly emotional? Reminisce about the waterfall later? Tell others about the experience? And so on.

The scientists also measured the volunteers overall happiness, using a standardized scale, and also their desire for wealth. They measured desire for wealth with this kind of question: How much money would you have to win in a lottery to live the life of your dreams?

Then they crunched all these data together to sort out the links between money and savoring and happiness, and here’s what they found: The more money people have, the less likely they are to savor things like waterfalls or blooming flowers or quiet weekends. What’s more, cause-and-effect was clear from the data. That is, the ability to savor life’s small pleasures was not diminishing the need or desire for money; it was the other way around.

And overall happiness? That’s the really interesting part. There is a modest relationship between wealth and happiness; that’s not all that surprising. But the inability to appreciate waterfalls undercuts money’s blessings. That is, any positive effects of wealth on happiness were offset by wealth’s deleterious effects on ability to savor life’s pleasures.

These findings, reported this week in the on-line version of Psychological Science, were provocative enough that the researchers wanted to double-check them in a different way. So in a second experiment, they used photographs of cash to prime thoughts of money in some of the volunteers. And just in case the volunteers were unintentionally distorting their feelings about waterfalls and honeysuckle and other small things in life, the scientists decided to actually observe them. So instead of using hypothetical vignettes, they gave all the volunteers a piece of chocolate to eat, and they had dispassionate observers rate the chocolate savoring experience: How slowly did they eat the chocolate? Did they close their eyes, or makes sounds of pleasure? And so forth.

Mmmm. The pleasure was unmistakable—but only for those without money in mind. The moneyed volunteers rushed through the chocolate like it was celery, and showed about that much pleasure in the experience.

All of this suggests that being rich—and having access to the best things in life—may actually queer our ability to enjoy the small, sweet things in life. What’s more—as the priming study indicates—just knowing we have access to the trappings of wealth is enough to make us take small pleasures for granted—and not appreciate them. And as Thurston Howell III can testify, being filthy rich can even take the joy out of an island paradise.

For more insights into the quirks of the human mind, visit Wray Herbert’s “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly in The Huffington Post and in the magazine Scientific American Mind. Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September.

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