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”:
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.