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Expensive Thrills Don't Do Much for Your Happiness


Expensive Thrills Don't Do Much for Your Happiness

Photograph by Getty Images

If you follow the gospel of “#YOLO,” the trite acronym for “you only live once” that is used to justify any number of exhilarating risks, you are probably not an older person. That’s because people become more satisfied with unremarkable experiences as they age, making hashtag-inspired thrills less necessary, a recent study shows.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research this summer, surveyed participants from ages 18 to 79. It found that the older people are, the more likely they are to find pleasure in humdrum things. Researchers Amit Bhattacharjee, at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and Cassie Mogilner, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, asked subjects how good they would feel in different scenarios.

Participants were asked to rate scenarios such as “Getting a yummy Frappuccino! It was perfect for that day, as it was really hot and muggy, and the drink was cold and icy. I love Frappuccinos!!!”

The Frappucino lover was describing an ordinary experience, but older study subjects rated occurrences like these an average eight out of nine on the happiness scale. Younger respondents gave them a seven.

Older people deemed such unusual events as “Giving birth to my son, my second child. It was my first at-home birth, unassisted” as happy as relatively boring ones. (Researchers didn’t probe exactly how an unassisted birth might elicit pleasure.)

The study offers hope that people might not need wealth to be content later in life. Frappucinos are less expensive than trips to Amsterdam, and they get octogenarians just as high.

In fact, science has a bunch of good news for people without trust funds who want to experience joy. Some recent findings on income and positivity suggest only tenuous links between the two.

1. Happiness is making no more than $75,000 per year. At least that’s what Princeton professors Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found when they looked closely at 450,000 responses to Gallup and Healthway surveys from 2008-2009.
When asked such questions about their day-to-day levels of happiness as “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” people who made more money were more likely to say yes—until their incomes reached $75,000. Making more than that had no additional return in terms of daily giggles.

2. More money really can bring more problems. A 2010 review of 86 studies (PDF) on the relationship between salary and fulfillment found that “level of pay had little relation to either job or pay satisfaction.”

Lawyers making close to $150,000 per year were actually less happy with their jobs than childcare workers who made around $24,000, the study found. Sometimes earning more made people feel better, but in general, researchers said, “those who make more money are little more satisfied than those who make considerably less.”

3. People start out focused on fulfillment rather than salary.
A recent survey from the Intelligence Group (PDF) found that millennials put a price on their happiness: $60,000. But that $60,000 was the amount that young people said they’d be willing to give up if it meant they could land a job that was actually fun. Nearly two-thirds of young people surveyed said they’d prefer a salary of $40,000 at a fulfilling job to a $100,000 paycheck at a soul-crushing one.

Kitroeff is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York, covering business education.

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