It's pretty clear that money can't buy you happiness, and we're not great at predicting what else will. If you've ever wondered exactly why that is, the BBC takes a look at how numbers change our expectations.
Picture: Gregg O'Connell/Flickr
We know that people who have had big payouts from the lottery aren't usually any happier for it, and the hedonic treadmill suggests that we just move back to the baseline of happiness after we get what we want. As far as predicting happiness is concerned, we're a little more unclear on why we're so bad at it. To figure it out, the BBC points to a study by Christopher Hsee of the Chicago School of Business:
[P]articipants were offered the option of working at a 6-minute task for a gallon of vanilla ice cream reward, or a 7-minute task for a gallon of pistachio ice cream. Under normal conditions, less than 30% of people chose the 7-minute task, mainly because they liked pistachio ice cream more than vanilla. For happiness scholars, this isn't hard to interpret –those who preferred pistachio ice cream had enough motivation to choose the longer task. But the experiment had a vital extra comparison. Another group of participants were offered the same choice, but with an intervening points system: the choice was between working for 6 minutes to earn 60 points, or 7 minutes to earn 100 points. With 50-99 points, participants were told they could receive a gallon of vanilla ice cream. For 100 points they could receive a gallon of pistachio ice cream. Although the actions and the effects are the same, introducing the points system dramatically affected the choices people made. Now, the majority chose the longer task and earn the 100 points, which they could spend on the pistachio reward — even though the same proportion (about 70%) still said they preferred vanilla.
Essentially, participants in the study were maximising their points even if that came at the expense of their happiness. The higher the points, the more they want it — even if doesn't make them as happy as the "cheaper" one. Basically, the higher number changed expectations. The fix? Don't rely on numbers when your happiness is concerned:
So next time you are buying a lottery ticket because of the amount it is paying out, or choosing wine by looking at the price, or comparing jobs by looking at the salaries, you might do well to remember to think hard about how much the bet, wine, or job will really promote your happiness, rather than simply relying on the numbers to do the comparison. Money doesn't buy you happiness, and part of the reason for that might be that money itself distracts us from what we really enjoy.
We've heard before that we're bad at interpreting numbers in retail, but it's usually in the context of getting a good deal (or not). In this case, it shows we're prone to sacrificing happiness for a bigger number, just because the higher price makes a product seem better.