Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
8 principles that will make you smarter about money
It's not the act of buying but how you spend money that improves happiness and life satisfaction.
- To prove money can't buy happiness, people point to millionaires and lottery winners who ruined their lives.
- Psychological studies have shown that learning how to spend your money can improve overall happiness.
- We explore eight money-spending principles that research suggests can bolster life satisfaction.
Gerald Muswagon won $10 million playing the lottery. He bought cars and a party pad. He threw lavish parties, showered his friends with gifts, and invested in a logging business. But the business flopped, the drugs and alcohol took their toll, and his reckless behavior grew more intense. He hung himself in 2005.
Then there's Suzanne Mullins. She won $4.2 million dollars, but lost it all after covering a slew of medical bills for uninsured family members and losing a settlement over a loan default. Or Lara and Roger Griffith, who used their winnings to buy a dream home, a Porsche, and luxurious trips. They lost their home in a fire, their money covering the underinsured asset, and their marriage to alleged infidelity.
Stories of lottery winnings bringing people to ruination are numerous. It even has a name, the "Lottery Curse." The response to such stories is equally ubiquitous. In order: there's the "tsk, tsk" of teeth, the solemn head shake, and the dusting off one of mom's favorite aphorism, "Well, money can't buy happiness."
While lottery winners are an extreme case, research has revealed the aphorism is true. Partly. Psychologists often added an addendum your mother forgot to quote. Money can't buy happiness — if you don't know how to spend it.
Why doesn't more money guarantee more happiness?
"Because people don't spend it right. Most people don't know the basic scientific facts about happiness — about what brings it and what sustains it — and so they don't know how to use their money to acquire it."
That quote is from a research paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, written by Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia), Daniel Gilbert (Harvard University), and Timothy Wilson (University of Virginia). These three psychologists reviewed the literature on affective forecasting, the ability to predict how you will feel in the future, to discover why people habitually mis-predict sources of happiness.
It seems our ignorance stems from two scuffs in our cognitive crystal balls. First, we inaccurately anticipate how quickly we adapt to new experiences, both positive and negative. Second, we don't consider context, often failing to recognize that the context in which we make a financial decision will not be the same as the one that decision affects.
"Money is an opportunity for happiness, but it is an opportunity that people routinely squander because the things they think will make them happy often don't," the study authors write.
They analogize this to collecting wine. No amount of wealth can help you stock a superior cellar if you are ignorant of wine. Similarly, wealthy people can have all the happiness advantages yet never capitalize on them if they know nothing about what brings happiness. (Recall our lucky yet ill-fated lottery winners.)
To help us stockpile life satisfaction, the authors offer eight principles for how to spend money wisely.
1) Buy more experiences, fewer material goods
We adapt to material goods quickly. Consider the Blu-ray you had to have but then watched once. Last year's fall fashion that hangs in the closet. Or those cabinet doors that were part of your dream kitchen but barely register as background now.
Experiences, on the other hand, stay with you. Our experiences become a central part of our identities, and we reminisce more on them than our material purchases. As a result, we develop a stronger emotional connection to experiences, one that remains intense long after the experience has passed.
Michael Norton, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard who co-wrote a book on the subject with Dunn, told us in an interview that experiences come with an additional benefit:
[W]hen we buy stuff for ourselves, we end up by ourselves with our stuff. Think of yourself on your phone playing a video game or whatever else it might be, you're often alone with your stuff. Whereas experiences, yes, we do some experiences solo, but many, many experiences have built into them that they're social.
2) Use money to benefit others
Because of our social nature, another principle is to benefit others with our money. Studies performed by Dunn and others have shown that participants who spend money pro-socially disclose a higher level of satisfaction. While personal spending did not diminish participants' happiness, it did not increase it either. The results were flat.
"It seems that on average when people give to others — which can be giving to charity, it can be treating a friend to lunch, it can be buying people gifts — that those actions of giving rather than keeping seem to be associated with more happiness," Norton said.
3) It's the small things that count
Smaller purchases like grabbing a coffee stave off our experiential adaptation thanks to inherent novelty.
As we mentioned, people adapt to gains and losses quickly. We loved that rug because it tied the room together, but eventually it became another rug. We were devastated when a loan shark soiled it, but we abide.
One way to impede adaption to positive sensations is to purchase smaller, more frequent pleasures in lieu of grand, expensive ones. The authors cite several reasons for this. Smaller events and purchases tend to have more novelty (think bar-side trivia night) and so stave off adjustment. And the diminishing marginal utility principle tells us that for each additional gain we receive less subjective value. By breaking up our gains, we increase the pleasure we derive from them.
"Thus, by treating themselves to frequent, fleeting pleasures (rather than more sporadic but prolonged experiences), consumers can capitalize on the burst of delight that accompanies the first minute of massage, the first bite of chocolate cake, and the first sight of the sea," the study authors write.
4) Avoid overpriced protection you don't need
We want to protect ourselves from the pain of loss, and this risk aversion makes us marks to statistically bad bets. Think of extended warranties. In theory, extended warranties protect you should your expensive purchase break. In practice, they are often just a way to spend more money on the same product.
A Consumer Report survey from 2013 found that car owners paid more in extended warranties than they reaped in direct benefits. The organization found a similar disparity with electronic warranties. While the electronics report mentions some exceptions—such as smartphones, which are expensive, breakable, and travel everywhere—it notes that manufacturer's warranties will cover much the same and repair costs are often comparable to the extended warranties.
5) Delay gratification
Sometimes anticipation proves more enjoyable than the experience itself.
Delayed gratification improves life satisfaction in several ways. The most obvious is that we make better decisions when we don't act immediately. We curb our interest-infested debt when we pass up a pleasure today for greater rewards tomorrow. And we stay healthier by not purchasing fast food during a frenzied lunch, but prepare a meal the night before.
Less obvious is the role anticipation plays in pleasure. As the study authors put it, anticipation is basically "free happiness." The items you purchase or receive provide a measurement of happiness, but add in some anticipation and you get to enjoy the item and the anticipation. It's a net benefit.
The authors note studies that suggest people can enjoy anticipation of an event, such as a trip or concert, even if the event itself is lackluster. A potential reason for this is that anticipation is "unsullied by reality." It's why younger you enjoyed the anticipation of a holiday gift more than the socks you unwrap.
6) Consider how purchases may affect daily life
When making big purchases, it's best to consider how they will affect your daily life, not their far-flung future potential.
(Photo: Universal Pictures)
Another blemish in our cognitive crystal balls is our tendency to view the future abstractly. The further the future under consideration, the more abstract our estimate. Because of this, the study authors recommend always considering how purchases will affect your daily life.
They give the example of a homebuyer choosing between a small yet maintained cottage or a large fixer-upper for the same price. Looking far into the future, the homebuyer can imagine their life after the repairs have been completed. This makes the large home seem the better deal
But if the homebuyer thinks about weekends lost to projects, evening trips to Home Depot, and the time spent in consultations with contractors, they may decide the distribution to their day-to-day life will ultimately diminish their life satisfaction.
"On any given day, affective experience is shaped largely by local features of one's current situation—such as experiencing time pressure at work or having a leisurely dinner with friends," the authors write. "Over time, psychological distress is predicted better by the hassles and 'uplifts' of daily life than by more major life events.
"This suggests that consumers who expect a single purchase to have a lasting impact on their happiness might make more realistic predictions if they simply thought about a typical day in their life."
7) Beware comparison shopping
Comparison shopping appears a healthy habit. You shop around, compare features and attributes, and rationally choose the best option for your price range. What could make you happier? That situation makes sense so long as humans are truly rational actors. But we aren't (see entries 1–6 on this list).
Comparison shopping sabotages our happiness by subtly shifting our attention. When we engage, we don't look for the features and attributes that would make us happy; instead, we focus on the differences of the available options. As a result, we buy more than we need or select for the best deal — not the item that we want or that better fits our circumstances.
Additionally, the more choices we have to compare, the less happy we are with our choice. As psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of the Paradox of Choice, explains in his TED Talk:
All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. [Second,] when there are lots of alternatives to consider, it's easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives that you reject that make you less satisfied with the alternative you've chosen.
Ever waste an evening scrolling through your Netflix list to ultimately watch nothing? Then you've experienced Schwartz's paradox.
8) Follow the crowd (occasionally)
Sometimes it pays to follow the crowd.
The authors' final principle is that the best way to predict your enjoyment is other people's experiences. Particular movie genres, for example, tend to be popular among certain demographics. Young people share a love for comedies and horror, while the 65+ crowd prefers dramas and thrillers. But you don't have to follow your demographic's normative tastes. Men who adore romantic comedies can still gauge their enjoyment by weighing a movie's reception among other rom-com aficionados.
We can also make better decisions by listening to what others can tell us about our own desires. The authors cite a study in which participants are served two snacks. They were asked to predict their enjoyment before eating and rate their enjoyment after partaking.
Observers watched the participants' facial reactions when presented the snacks and guessed at how they would enjoy of the food. The observers made more accurate forecasts of the participants' enjoyment than the participants themselves.
"This suggests that an attentive dining companion may be able to tell whether we would enjoy the fish or the chicken simply by watching our reactions when these options are presented. More broadly, other people may provide a useful source of information about the products that will bring us joy because they can see the nonverbal reactions that may escape our own notice," the authors write.
The root of some happiness
The reason devastation of lottery winners makes the news is because these events are rare — and, let's be honest, a dash of schadenfreude. In truth, research suggests the Lottery Curse is an invention of the availability heuristic. Most winners don't burn through their earnings or even quit their jobs. They simply spend their money more wisely.
"It seems like a simple relationship, which is: we want more money and we want more happiness, so maybe if we get more money, we'll get more happiness. And it turns out that the relationship is really a lot more complicated than that," Norton said in our interview.
We may not all have lottery winnings, or even the $95,000 per year research equates with optimal life satisfaction. But if we learn how to spend our money toward the things that truly make us happy, we may all be, at least a little bit, happier.
- Money on the Brain: How the Subconscious Mind Affects How You ... ›
- 2018 Wealth report: What do the super rich spend their money on ... ›
- Want Happiness? Buy Experiences, Not Things, Says Cornell ... ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.