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“Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending”

Sometimes I get books in the mail with titles like, Statistics for Everyone, or Whassup with American Politics?, and I don’t know what to say about them because I’m clearly not their target audience: from my work, I already pretty much know everything that’s going to be in those books.

Yesterday, though, what came in the mail but this book by psychologists Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton that’s written just for people like me: rich comfortable Americans with lots of spending money who want to use that money to be even happier than they already are. I have some mixed feelings about this goal (don’t people like me have enough happiness as it is???) and I think that Dunn and Norton do too, in that, although they give occasional hints as to their affluent audience (referring, for example, to luxury cars, houses with swimming pools in exclusive suburbs, massages at the Four Seasons Hotel, and bullfight tickets (yuck!) for a “dream vacation in Spain”), they don’t seem to offer any explicit discussion of who they are aiming their advice at.

I certainly don’t think it’s wrong for Dunn and Norton to try to improve the happiness of America’s economic elite—after all, I teach at Harvard and Columbia!—I just think it’s a central, if unstated, aspect of the book. And, to be fair, many of their suggestions would work with lower-income people as well.

The book was sent to me, perhaps, because it overlaps with two of my research interests: happiness studies, and the statistical interpretation of psychology research.

Many of the studies have that “Psychological Science” look to them, for example this one by Kathleen Vohs, Nicole Mead, and Miranda Goode that reported a huge effect on participants as “a function of whether they had been exposed earlier to a fish screensaver, a blank screen, or a money screensaver”:

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Unfortunately, when I looked at the linked paper I could not find any information on data, experimental conditions, who was in the study, or even the sample sizes. The effect appears so huge that I don’t even know how to think about it.

Overall I found Dunn and Norton’s advice to be reasonable, and I appreciated their effort to link their recommendations to experimental data.

At some points, though, their general theoretical framework seemed to contradict their specific recommendations. For example, one of their general points is that one should “buy experiences rather than material goods,” but then to illustrate that point, they give an example of Harvard dorm rooms. Apparently, some dorms at that Ivy-leaved haven are much more desired than others, but retrospective evaluations found that the students who were randomly assigned to the more sought-after dorms were no happier, on average, than those assigned to the less-popular dorms. B-b-b-ut . . . living in a dorm room for a year or two is an experience, not a material good! So this example seems to go against their argument. Here is one very salient experience that doesn’t matter as much as people think.

To be fair, another one of the authors’ points is that everyday experiences (such as living in a nice dorm room) are less important than special experiences (like that bullfight—ugh, I don’t want to keep thinking about that one…). So the Harvard dorm story could work for them, it’s just in the wrong chapter. It was just funny to see an example right at the beginning of chapter 1 that contradicted the chapter’s message.

There’s something about the book’s tone that seems off to me—they talk about everyday happiness and they talk about national policy, but they never seem to get around to the tough problems that can make people really sad. It seems odd for a book on happiness and spending not to discuss anything about how to spend money to alleviate depression: should depressed people spend their money on drugs, on therapy, should they change their jobs, etc.? There must be a lot of research by psychologists on this topic.

But, within the narrow bounds of the book’s topics, I appreciate the focus on research. My favorite parts are when the authors describe the experiments that they and their collaborators did to answer this or that question about everyday happiness.


  1. You may find a course landaise much more to your liking, wherein the artists (“sauteurs”) do not aim to hurt the bull, but rather to vault over it in a beautiful jump, much like the one seen in Bronze Age art. It’s a magnificent feat of daring, and worth seeing.

  2. jmf says:

    You’ve got it all wrong with respect to the dorm rooms. Some dorms are more sought after because, materially, they are nicer – maybe nicer amenities etc. However, students were equally happy regardless of which dorm they were assigned to because the experience of dorm living – living in close quarters with others, developing friendships, etc. – is relatively equal across dorms. So this is a perfect example – people think that the nicer dorm room will make them happier, but ultimately it is the experience that matters most.

  3. Citywalker says:

    I had a different interpretation of the example of the relative desirability of Harvard dorm rooms to illustrate the “buy experiences rather than material goods” recommendation. Perhaps the authors mean that the material superiority of some dorm rooms turned out not to be as important as the social and intellectual experiences a dorm afforded. Friends, fun, and interesting conversation > fireplace and wood paneling.

    • Andrew says:

      Actually, even the less desirable Harvard dorms are pretty nice!

      • Citywalker says:

        Yes, it’s about cachet of the desired dorms more than the material superiority, isn’t it? Where does that fit in to their happiness theory? Maybe three years in a desired dorm taught the happy lesson that being amongst the cool kids is not the secret to happiness. :-)

  4. Brent Buckner says:

    I suspect that the title and medium serve pretty well for people to know whether or not they’re in the target audience.

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, I agree. And there’s no point criticizing a book because of what it doesn’t include. Still, there seemed something vaguely imbalanced about a book that’s all about happiness that doesn’t discuss depression at all.

  5. merian says:

    Seriously. I’ve been to Spain, would love to go again, and none of their ingredients for a dream vacation would be part of mine. I despair of the rich.

  6. jonathan says:

    If speaking about happiness, are special experiences more important? I’m sure you’ve read all the time/activity data from the past. How exactly does one compare the freedom of laundry today versus what that required 100 years ago? Or back in the old days when washing sheets might be a once a year multi-day activity that involved collected urine? That must have been real fun. I see what the data says we have chosen to spend time on when freed from drudgery.

    One might say that catching a fish and gutting it would be a special experience, which it is only because we can buy fish already gutted. I hear people talk about how they were served fish with the head attached … as though that’s not how the other billions in the world experience it. So what is a special experience? Is can be a label attached to a culturally shared notion of “vacation” but it can be other things harder to label.

    And finally, I’ve read description by early riders of merry-go-rounds. The speed was dizzying and the whirling genuinely displaced them from their perceptions of reality. Maybe a child experiences that the first time on one, but adults? And of course people were afraid humans would die if we went too fast because the only examples of that would likely have been someone falling a long way like Wile E. Coyote. When I look at happiness materials, I’m generally unimpressed with how they approach basic contextual effects. We also see this in studies about exercise.

  7. jrkrideau says:

    Re the Vohs et al., (2008) paper you link to: It is published in an American Psychology Society journal and looks like a really bad job by a tabloid. Is Current Directions In Psychological Science trying to replace Psychology Today? Is APS trying to replace the Murdock empire?

    The “real” publication seems to be Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2006). The Psychological Consequences of Money. Science, 314(5802), 1154–1156. doi:10.1126/science.1132491

    I am not terribly impressed with it either but that may be because of the brevity that a Science article seems to require. Well, n-sizes look small and there are other caveats but if it had been written in proper APA style it probably would not look too bad.

  8. Jack says:

    Bullfights yuck? Perhaps we could get a ticket to a factory farm slaughterhouse to see where all the happy meals are made? No. Well you won’t find PETA outside of one protesting either.

  9. Ben Hyde says:

    It’s a good insight that we buy material goods so we can experience their use. But the whole point of the hedonistic treadmill argument is that there is something broken in our calculations around that. In so far as we are rational about this we calculate the value we will extract from the good by it’s use; use-value, experience-value, signal-value, etc. etc. While I suspect that most of the error arises from they hyperbolic discounting it might be argued that experience needs to be fresh – but then I like the turning of the seasons.