April 23, 2013

When Earning Becomes Overearning

Having more than we can possibly use can put dent in happiness.

There was a saying during the 80s — He who dies with the most toys wins. But is this true? We often think that the more money we make, the happier we’ll be. So, do people often work considerably more than 40 hours per week, not just to be comfortable, but to earn more and more, just for its own sake?

That's the question behind a recent three-part study, and the answer appears to be, yes. According to the authors, “We found that individuals do overearn, even at the cost of happiness, and that overearning is a result of mindless accumulation—a tendency to work and earn until feeling tired rather than until having enough.”

What is actually “enough” money and what is overearning? And isn't happiness pretty individual and subjective? It's true — what a person perceives as having enough and happiness are both difficult to quantify. The researchers, psychologists at three business schools, developed an ingenious way of studying this question in the lab.

Phase One: Earn More or Take It Easy and Earn Enough?

Study participants were told the main goal was to make themselves as happy as possible. In this first phase, which lasted five minutes, they could choose to listen to music (leisure) or press a key to interrupt the music to hear an annoying sound (work). For every certain number of times they “worked” (there were high-earning and low-earning conditions), they'd earn a chocolate.

Many participants ended up earning far more chocolates than they could consume.

Participants could not eat the chocolates as they accumulated them, but were told they would be able to eat them later. In that phase, they could eat the chocolates, but any they couldn’t eat, they’d have to leave behind.

As the researchers had predicted, people tended to forgo the music for “working.” Many participants ended up earning far more chocolates than they could consume.

In the high-earning scenario (where they got “paid” one chocolate for 20 annoying tones), they tended to voluntarily earn almost 11 chocolates on average, but only consume about four. In the low-earning situation (where they got one chocolate for 120 tones), they tended to earn only about 2.5 chocolates, and consume about 1.7, on average.

Phase Two: The Consequences of Overearning: Less Time to Enjoy the Fruits of Our Labors

People don't usually consider the consequences of overconsumption as they go through life. They accumulate money, but lose the time to enjoy it. To see if people would overearn even when they were asked to predict the consequences of overearning before they began, the team designed a second study that looked at whether people would continue to “mindlessly accumulate” even when they were made aware of the ways overconsumption didn't lead to happiness, or if it would lead to less overconsumption and more happiness.

The more jokes people accumulated, the less time people had to enjoy them as they were displayed on a computer screen at the end of the trial.

This second phase used jokes instead of chocolates. This time, overearning hurt consumption. The more jokes people accumulated, the less time people had to enjoy them as they were displayed on a computer screen at the end of the trial.

Researchers asked one group to predict how many jokes they’d want to accumulate — this group tended to spontaneously stop accumulating when they reached this point. The other group was not asked to predict, and they tended to mindlessly accumulate many more jokes than they could actually read and enjoy. And interestingly, the more jokes they accumulated, the less happy they rated themselves as being at the end of the trial.

Phase Three: Limiting Consumption Increases Happiness

In the third part of the study, researchers showed that when an earning cap was set (again, on chocolate consumption), it had the effect of increasing net happiness, compared to people who were free to earn as much as they could. It appeared to relieve people of the impulse to overearn.

Though the results are certainly intriguing, you may be wondering how much they apply to the general population. To this the researchers say that just as overconsumption of food has very recently and quickly become an epidemic, so may overearning in the near future, as parts of the world become richer and richer. No one, they argue, would have thought that obesity would have become the problem it is, but recent developments in food production have allowed us to create overabundance. In the same way, technology may soon allow more people monetary overabundance.

The researchers spell out all the reasons that overearning can lead to unhappiness – we forgo pleasure for work, we put undue pressure on those around us who feel they must compete, we pay less attention to our loved ones and kids, and of course, having too much stuff creates a lot of waste.

What is a bit unclear is how well chocolate and jokes represent the actual earning of money from work, since clearly there are different motivations. But the study does point to our inherent inability to measure what we actually need – and what will actually make us happy in the end. So it may not be a bad idea to take these results into account, and work a little less if you can, and enjoy your family and friends a little more.

The study is published in the journal, Psychological Science.

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