Why Do We Pursue Things That We Know Will NOT Make Us Happy?

If we all want to be happy (and I think we do), then why do we pursue things that we know won’t make us happy all the while turning our back on things that we know will make us happy?

In the Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt shares the work of Cornell professor Robert Frank who himself is the author of Luxury Fever. Frank wants to know why when nations rise in wealth the people aren’t any happier. His research shows that when people’s income increases they spend their extra income on luxury items that they soon get used to and don’t derive any long term or lasting joy from. And they do this instead of using their money on things that would make them lastingly happier.

Here are some examples listed by Haidt/Frank…

  • We are happier and healthier when we take time off and spend it with friends, but people are working more hours not less. 
  • People would be happier if they reduced their commuting time even if it meant living in a smaller house, but people are choosing longer commutes so they can have bigger houses.
  • People would be happier if they saved money now so they could spend it on something more important later, but most people spend everything they have on present consumption.

I read all of this in December and then along comes an article in the business section of the New York Times on January 4th titled “You Can’t Take It With You But You Still Want More.”

In the article Matt Richtel introduces the idea of “mindless accumulation.” He’s referring to a study published in Psychological Science that shows “a deeply rooted instinct to earn more than can possibly be consumed, even when this imbalance makes us unhappy.”

Researchers asked people to sit with headphones on for five minutes during which they could listen to pleasant music or obnoxious white noise. If they listened to the obnoxious noise, they could earn pieces of chocolate that they could later eat. But they were told they’d only have 5 minutes to eat the chocolate and anything left over would be taken away. So there was a limit to how much even the biggest chocolate lover would need to “earn” by listening to the unpleasant noise.

The surprise is that people listened to the obnoxious, white noise for far longer than they needed to. They subjected themselves to harsh and even painful noise to accumulate far more chocolates than they could possibly eat in 5 minutes. Christopher Hsee, one of the paper’s authors, called this “mindless accumulation.”

Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School noted that people often choose “stuff” over “happiness” because “stuff” whether it’s cars, houses, vacations, clothing, etc… is easier to measure and quantify. “Most things that truly make us happy in life are harder to count,” he said.

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