Thursday, August 12, 2010

Articles for V-RADIO 8/12/2010 show.

On this episode of V-RADIO we will be talking about how money and materialism do not make you happy. I found a couple of articles that are relevant to this.

Why Money Makes You Unhappy
By Jonah Lehrer

Money is surprisingly bad at making us happy. Once we escape the trap of poverty, levels of wealth have an extremely modest impact on levels of happiness, especially in developed countries. Even worse, it appears that the richest nation in history – 21st century America – is slowly getting less pleased with life. (Or as the economists behind this recent analysis concluded: “In the United States, the [psychological] well-being of successive birth-cohorts has gradually fallen through time.”)

Needless to say, this data contradicts one of the central assumptions of modern society, which is that more money equals more pleasure. That’s why we work hard, fret about the stock market and save up for that expensive dinner/watch/phone/car/condo. We’ve been led to believe that dollars are delight in a fungible form.

But the statistical disconnect between money and happiness raises a fascinating question: Why doesn’t money make us happy? One intriguing answer comes from a new study by psychologists at the University of Liege, published in Psychological Science. The scientists explore the “experience-stretching hypothesis,” an idea first proposed by Daniel Gilbert. He explains “experience-stretching” with the following anecdote:

I’ve played the guitar for years, and I get very little pleasure from executing an endless repetition of three-chord blues. But when I first learned to play as a teenager, I would sit upstairs in my bedroom happily strumming those three chords until my parents banged on the ceiling…Doesn’t it seem reasonable to invoke the experience-stretching hypothesis and say that an experience that once brought me pleasure no longer does? A man who is given a drink of water after being lost in the Mojave Desert may at that moment rate his happiness as eight. A year later, the same drink might induce him to feel no better than a two.

What does experience-stretching have to do with money and happiness? The Liege psychologists propose that, because money allows us to enjoy the best things in life – we can stay at expensive hotels and eat exquisite sushi and buy the nicest gadgets – we actually decrease our ability to enjoy the mundane joys of everyday life. (Their list of such pleasures includes ”sunny days, cold beers, and chocolate bars”.) And since most of our joys are mundane – we can’t sleep at the Ritz every night – our ability to splurge actually backfires. We try to treat ourselves, but we end up spoiling ourselves.

The study itself is straightforward. The psychologists gathered 351 adult employees of the University of Li├Ęge, from custodial staff to senior administrators, for an online survey. (I should note that it remains unclear whether happiness and other aspects of well-being can be meaningfully measured with a multiple choice test. So caveats apply.) The scientists primed the subjects by showing them a stack of Euro bills before asking them a bunch of questions which attempted to capture their “savoring ability.” Here’s how the savoring test worked:

Participants are asked to imagine finishing an important task (contentment), spending a romantic weekend away (joy), or discovering an amazing waterfall while hiking (awe). Each scenario is followed by eight possible reactions, including the four savoring strategies referred to in the introduction (i.e., displaying positive emotions, staying present, anticipating or reminiscing about the event, and telling other people about the experience). Participants are required to select the response or responses that best characterize what their typical behavior in each situation would be, and receive 1 point for each savoring strategy selected.

Interestingly, the scientists found that people in the wealth condition – they’d been primed with all those Euros – had significantly lower savoring scores. This suggests that simply looking at money makes us less interested in relishing the minor pleasures of life. Furthermore, subjects who made more money in real life – the scientists asked all subjects for their monthly income – scored significantly lower on the savoring test. A subsequent experiment duplicated this effect among Canadian students, who spent less time savoring a chocolate bar after being shown a picture of Canadian dollars. The psychologists end on a bleak note:

Taken together, our findings provide evidence for the provocative notion that having access to the best things in life may actually undermine one’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures. Our research demonstrates that a simple reminder of wealth produces the same deleterious effects as actual wealth on an individual’s ability to savor, suggesting that perceived access to pleasurable experiences may be sufficient to impair everyday savoring. In other words, one need not actually visit the pyramids of Egypt or spend a week at the legendary Banff spas in Canada for one’s savoring ability to be impaired—simply knowing that these peak experiences are readily available may increase one’s tendency to take the small pleasures of daily life for granted.

This makes me think of the Amish. From a certain perspective, the Amish live without a lot of the stuff most of us consider essential. They don’t use cars, reject the Internet, avoid the mall, and prefer a quiet permanence to hefty bank accounts. The end result, however, is a happiness boom. When asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, the Amish are as satisfied with their lives as members of the Forbes 400. There are, of course, many ways to explain the contentment of the Amish. (The community has strong ties, plenty of religious faith and stable families, all of which reliably correlate with high levels of well-being.) But I can’t help wonder if part of their happiness is related to experience-stretching. They don’t fret about getting the latest iPhone, or eating at the posh new restaurant, or buying the au courant handbag. The end result, perhaps, is that the Amish are better able to enjoy what really matters, which is all the stuff money can’t buy"

The next pair or articles I will be quoting from, but they are in reference to a woman named Tammy Strobel, who shed her previous consumer lifestyle in favor of limiting the personal items she owned to no more then 100.

"At one point in her life -- when she owned a two-bedroom condo, two cars, and enough wedding china to serve two dozen people gazpacho at the same time -- Tammy Strobel, 31, asked herself if all that "stuff" actually made her and her husband, Logan, happy.

Apparently she's not the only woman to feel less than euphoric an hour after making an impulse buy: A story about her new un-material-girl lifestyle is currently the most popular piece on the New York Times website.

After the jump she tells Lemondrop what exactly she gave away, what she misses most, and why she and her husband are happier than ever living on ... half their former income.

Then, you tell us, which life would you choose -- Tammy's before or Tammy's after?

Tammy Before: She worked as a project manager for an investment management firm in Davis, Calif. and netted about $40,000 a year. She and Logan also had $30,000 in debt.

After reading up on the simplicity movement (she blogs about it at rowdykittens.com), they started donating to charity like fiends.

Out went sweaters, shoes, books, pots, pans. They even put the TV in the closet as a trial run, then decided they could part with it. Then they sold their cars, too.

Next, Tammy found the 100 Things Challenge, a grassroots website/movement that encourages consumers to pare down to just 100 items. And, from underwear to albums, she did.

Tammy After: Three years later, Tammy and Logan live in a 400-square-foot apartment in Portland, Ore. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. They're still car-free -- in fact they self-published an e-book, "Simply Car-Free", about life after oil dependency.

She works as a freelance web designer and writer, making about $24,000 a year, which, she says, covers their bills. Logan is getting his doctorate in physiology. The couple is now debt-free.

Because she doesn't work as much, Tammy has more time to travel, spend outdoors, be in nature, and volunteer, which she spends four hours a month doing at Living Yoga."

This article goes on to ask her what motivated her to do this, and how her life is now:

"Lemondrop: When and why did the "100 Things Challenge" first strike a chord with you?
Tammy Strobel: I've been interested in the voluntary simplicity movement for the last four years. Dave Bruno's 100 Things Challenge came along about two years later and I think it was the simplicity of the challenge that made it so engaging and helped me reevaluate what I need in my life. The point of the challenge is to reduce the number of personal items you own to under 100 items. Methods of counting range from person to person. In my interpretation of Dave's 100 Thing Challenge, the exercise is less about counting up stuff than it is about asking ourselves larger questions like:

-- Where was my stuff made?
-- How was my stuff processed and where does it all go when I'm done with it?
-- Why do I shop so much?
-- Do material things really make me happy?
-- If I have less stuff to worry about, will I have more time to give back to my community?

Being aware of how stuff affects our physical and emotional health is empowering. More importantly, making small changes in our own lives leads to a greater awareness of the connection between environmental, economic, and social justice issues."

In the next question she talks about some of the things that are the reason I often suggest to people to watch the documentary "The Century of Self":

Lemondrop:Before this, your life seemed to look a lot like a lot of ours. You were newlyweds, with an apartment, two cars, and a full-time job. What did you mean when you said you felt trapped on the "work-spend treadmill"?

"I was going to work to earn money to buy stuff I didn't need. And that's not a healthy pattern. I didn't feel like I had control over my time or finances. By downsizing, I've gained control over both."

The conversation continues:

Lemondrop: Can you give us a partial list of what you parted with? What was the hardest material thing to leave behind?

"Some of the items we parted with included a lot of books, furniture, clothing, our television, and cars. The cars were the hardest to leave behind. We slowly shed cars over a period of three years. We started out with one car and one truck that we drove daily, and now we don't own a car. After we adjusted to car-free living, we asked ourselves, "Why did it take so long to sell our cars?"

When I think about how much money we spent on them, I don't miss them at all. Especially when you consider the financial strain of car ownership.

Even if you've paid off your car, do you really know the true cost? According to the book "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car":

-- Americans spend one-fifth of their income on cars.
-- An American Automobile Association study pointed out that the average American spends $8,410 per year to own a vehicle. That's $700 per month. (The figure includes car payments, insurance, gas, oil, car washes, registration fees, taxes, parking, tools and repairs.)"

And further:

Lemondrop: I think a lot of women fantasize about jettisoning their entire lives to have the time to do the things you seem to now: volunteer for something they love, set their own hours, take a vacation without worrying about vacation days. How do you feel different than you did before?

"I have so much more motivation now than I did before! Learning how to love life and not stuff was the game changer. Clutter gets in the way of living a full and happy life. Valuable time that could be spent with family, friends or volunteering gets sucked up with too much time in the house cleaning or in the mall shopping, or results in financial strain from overspending.

I'm not perfect and still have consumer tendencies. However, I've taken note of my trigger points. If I'm feeling lonely, I don't go shopping anymore. I head outside for a bike ride, read a book or volunteer for a nonprofit."

It's clear that she enjoyed her life much more after getting off the endless ride of working to buy more stuff.

When asked if she is happier:

"Are you happier?
Yes, we are both happier. Without the burden of stuff or debt weighting us down we have less anxiety and more time to spend with friends, family, and give back to our community. I know a lot of folks probably think we're crazy. But really what's crazier? Living with less or living solely to pay for a large house to store your stuff in?"

In the second article that also talks about Tammy's lifestyle changes, they quote various scientific studies on the effects of consumerism and happiness:

"So just where does happiness reside for consumers? Scholars and researchers haven’t determined whether Armani will put a bigger smile on your face than Dolce & Gabbana. But they have found that our types of purchases, their size and frequency, and even the timing of the spending all affect long-term happiness.

One major finding is that spending money for an experience — concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff.

“ ‘It’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch’ is basically the idea,” says Professor Dunn, summing up research by two fellow psychologists, Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich. Her own take on the subject is in a paper she wrote with colleagues at Harvard and the University of Virginia: “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.” (The Journal of Consumer Psychology plans to publish it in a coming issue.)

Thomas DeLeire, an associate professor of public affairs, population, health and economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently published research examining nine major categories of consumption. He discovered that the only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles."

"“We buy a new house, we get accustomed to it,” says Professor Lyubomirsky, who studies what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.

Over time, that means the buzz from a new purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm.

“We stop getting pleasure from it,” she says.

And then, of course, we buy new things."

It is critical to understand the value of this information. It proves a few things that are critical about the success of the Venus Project.

1. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that all capitalists are trying to chase down loses it's luster. People who have everything are not happy just for having everything. Whereas people with a low material lifestyle, even those who do not have technology like the Amish have very happy lives.

2. Material possessions do not enhance quality of life. And in fact, having too much of them can even hinder your ability to enjoy life. Mankind is lost in a never ending loop of work, buy, and work some more so you can buy some more. Then work some more to buy an even bigger house to put the stuff in that you bought. We end up in huge debt, in the end our possessions do not belong to us. We belong to them.

3. Travel, and actual experiences are far more rewarding in the long run then material items. Therefore the lifestyle we suggest in the Venus Project will be far more fulfilling then any amount of running the rat race to get the next new car, new house, new I-Gadget, etc.

More and more compelling evidence that our proposed social direction is the right choice surfaces all the time.