#54 - Elizabeth Dunn - “How Can I Use My Money Most Effectively in Order to Promote My Happiness?"

49 minutes

In Episode 54, we welcome Elizabeth “Liz” Dunn, author of the book, “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending”.

Meb suggests they walk through the book using its five broad takeaways as their outline. But before they dive in, he asks Liz about her inspiration for writing the book.

Liz tells us that when she began making a “real, grown up” salary, she wasn’t entirely certain what to do with it. She was curious how to use it most effectively to promote her own happiness. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a great deal of research on the topic.

Next, Meb asks Liz to discuss her first main finding (and likely the best-known finding) – our happiness tends to increase when we spend money on experiences rather than things. Liz gives us the key takeaways, after which Meb asks why buying experiences over things is hard for us, when we know that’s what we should do.

The problem is we’re bombarded with opportunities to buy things. And it’s easy to see the differences between, say, Liz’s Honda and Meb’s Ferrari (no, Meb doesn’t own a Ferrari). With this comparison, Meb would feel great. But it cuts both ways – it’s also very easy for Meb to see someone else’s far more expensive Bentley, therein making him feel less satisfied with his Ferrari. Conversely, it’s more challenging to compare experiences. Each experience is somewhat unique, therein reducing the tendency to compare. Liz gives us an example using a safari she went on.

Meb and Liz soon move on to the second takeaway from the book: “make it a treat.” One of the greatest misunderstandings of happiness is the idea that if something makes us happy, then more of it should make us even happier. Apparently, that’s not the case. Whether we’re talking someone’s salary or a little luxury like “avocado toast” (Meb and Liz are both big fans), when we have more of it, this can erode our capacity to appreciate it.

This dovetails into the discussion of the salary “line in the sand” above which added dollars has diminishing impact on real happiness. Liz tells us that in the U.S., this figure is about $75K. But she mentions it with an interesting context…

There are two “flavors” to happiness: 1) the kind that comes when you evaluate a question like “am I living the kind of life I want to live?” and 2) the kind that comes when you ask “did I laugh or smile yesterday?”

If you’re making more money – well beyond $75K, you’re more likely to answer #1 in an affirmative way. Sure, as you jet off to Bora Bora and evaluate your life, you’re likely to feel good about having the wealth to enable such a trip. However, it turns out this added wealth has very little effect on the second type of happiness – day-to-day happiness.

The third takeaway is “buying time.” What are we actually doing with the minutes of our lives? Is there a way to trade our money for more time? Liz and Meb discuss spending an hour commuting to work every day, and how miserable that makes people. Wherever appropriate, it makes sense to spend money on things/services/people that can give us back our time, which we can then spend with loved ones or volunteering, etc.

Meb makes the point “show me your calendar and checkbook and I’ll show you what you care about.” While Liz agrees to an extent, she points out that many times the calendar and checkbook DON’T align with things we truly care about because we get into habits – say, mowing the lawn even though we have enough money to pay someone else to do it for us. So part of our challenge is to sniff out where our priorities are out of alignment with where we’re actually spending our time/money, then look to shift out of that mindset. 

The fourth takeaway is “pay now, consume later.” This is hardly the way our culture does things, with its credit card mentality. Unfortunately, consuming first and paying later is exactly the wrong thing for happiness. Liz and Meb discuss this in detail, dovetailing into the toxic effects of debt.

The final takeaway is “invest in other people.” Liz has found that we tend to be happier when we spend our money on other people, more so than ourselves. In supporting this takeaway, she tells us of her study in which she gave people either a $5 or $20 bill, and asked them to spend it by the end of the day – the caveat was that some people were asked to spend it on themselves, while others were asked to spend it on other people. Liz’s team followed up at the end of the day, calling the participants, and found that those who spent the money on others reported feeling happier than the people who’d spent it on themselves.    

After finishing discussing the book, Liz and Meb go over a paper Liz just published. It’s a fascinating look into what motivates wealthier people to give more to charity. In short, people with lots of money tend to focus on personal achievement more so than the communal “group achievement.” As such, a messaging strategy that reframes the wealthy individual as the hero or standout tends to result in more charitable donations as compared to a communal message.

There’s plenty more in this episode, including Liz’s next research project, discussion of Syrian refugees, what prompted a classic Meb-meltdown as a child, and finally, Meb’s pointed question to Liz: If I put you on the spot and asked you to give us one single piece of advice for achieving more happiness, what would it be?

What’s Liz’s answer? Find out in Episode 54.

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