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Ask Ariely: On Financial Feelings, Polling Places, and Meaningless Messages

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Why is society structured around the accumulation of wealth? Is this part of human nature, and is it the best way to achieve happiness?

—Annie 

Most of us believe that more money brings more happiness—and the wealthy are no exception. In a 2014 survey of very wealthy clients at a large investment bank, Mike Norton of Harvard Business School asked clients how happy they were and how much money would make them really happy.

Regardless of the amount they already had, they responded that they’d need about three times more to feel happy. So people with $2 million thought they could achieve happiness if they had $6 million, while those with $6 million saw happiness in having $18 million, and so on. This kind of thinking changes, of course, as people get more money, with happiness in reach at a level that is some multiple more than what they already have.

Although people predict that money strongly influences happiness, researchers also find that the actual relationship between wealth and happiness is more nuanced. In 2010 Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton analyzed data from over 450,000 responses to a daily survey of 1,000 U.S. residents by the Gallup Organization. They found that money does influence happiness at low to moderate levels of income. Real lack of money leads to more worry and sadness, higher levels of stress, less positive affect (happiness, enjoyment, and reports of smiling and laughter) and less favorable evaluations of one’s own life. Yet most of these effects only hold for people who earn $75,000 a year or less. Above about $75,000, higher income is not the simple ticket to happiness that we think it is.

Together, these studies show that we need far less money than we think to maximize our emotional well-being and minimize stress. This means that accumulating wealth isn’t about the pursuit of happiness—it’s about the pursuit of what we think (wrongly) will make us happy.

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Dear Dan,

When I voted this morning in the U.K. general election (at a polling station in a church) I realized that the choice of venue may impact electoral decisions. Most polling stations in my area are in either a community center or a church, which may have mental associations for voters (for example, church=conservative/right; community center=community/social responsibility/left). I was wondering if you have ever looked at this phenomenon.

—Zaur 

Your intuition is absolutely right. In a 2008 paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jonah Berger of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues showed that Arizona voters assigned to vote in schools were more likely to support an education funding initiative. In a follow-up lab experiment, Mr. Berger also showed that even viewing images of schools makes people more supportive of tax increase to fund public schools.

In other words, the context for voting certainly changes how we look at the world and what decisions we make.

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Dear Dan,

People I meet sometimes ask me for my email address. On one hand, I want to keep in touch with those who are truly interested in friendship, but on the other, I don’t want to have a million meaningless exchanges. How can I get email only from people who are truly invested in real discussions?

—Ron 

The problem is that email is too easy to send—it just takes a few seconds—while the person getting it on the other side might have to spend a lot of time responding to a particular message or to their email in general. My answer? Get a complex email address that takes some time to type. With this added effort you will get emails only from the people who are really interested in contacting you.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.


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