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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Underindulgence, Rx for Greater Happiness

We have all heard stories of people who have become instantly wealthy through winning the lottery and then losing both friends and fortunes in disastrous ways, primarily because they became alienated from others through the pursuit of more and more things for themselves.

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of a new book called “Happy Money: The Science of Spending,” note that while people with a comfortable living standard often report feeling better off (happier) than people living in poverty, more income doesn’t buy any more happiness once we reach some reasonably comfortable standard. They learned that while people believed that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000, that in fact people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000.

So, contrary to popular belief, folks able to buy more for themselves are generally not effective in turning their money into happiness, whereas in most cases people feel better off by simply buying less, and buying more for others. In other words, underindulgence, doing with a little less than ones usual, is actually the better key to getting a greater “bang for your buck” in the happiness department.

For example, chocolate lovers who enjoyed their favorite treat and then abstained for a week had a greater sense of enjoyment of chocolate than those who indulged their craving every day. So while a few extra blessings may sometimes help give us a lift, the pleasure curve soon peaks and drops off and the law of diminishing returns sets in.

In another fascinating study by Dunn and Norton, random individuals were given an envelope with some money and with instructions on how to spend it, with half being told to buy something for themselves and the others to buy a gift for  someone else. In virtually all cases, at the end of the day, those who spent their money making someone else happier reported the most joy and sense of well being. This should come as no surprise to those who have long been taught that to lose our lives is to save it, and that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Norton, in an unforgettably inspiring talk on Ted.com, refers to a website called DonorsChoose.org, where teachers list specific needs they have for projects to enhance their students' learning. Contribute to any of them and you get a thank note you both from the teacher and from his or class members stating how their gift has benefited them.

But even without this kind of feedback, can we imagine the difference we could make in sharing the joy of the mother of a malnourished or sick child if we invested in their need rather than just adding to our accumulation of more stuff?
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