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Does money buy greater happiness?
Holly Schiffrin (UMW) column on consumer psychology: School's in Recession: Lessons on Being Happier

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Date published: 10/3/2010

THE PAST FEW years, a difficult economic recession has required many Americans to cut back on unnecessary purchases and leisure activities. The term "stay-cation" has cropped up in many Facebook communications. People are staying at home instead of traveling, to get the relaxation benefits without the expense. Despite the feeling of sacrifice, Americans may be learning important lessons about living in a way that brings greater happiness.

The expression "Money can't buy happiness" is an extremely hard maxim for many to accept. Americans seem to think that if we could just make more money, then we would be happier. The problem is that we tend to overestimate both the happiness associated with good things and the negative feelings associated with life's bad things.

The truth is that people are adaptable and resilient. If there is an annoying light fixture flickering overhead, at first we think it will drive us crazy, but soon we barely notice it. Or we are able to tune out annoying noise (traffic outside our window or our children playing nearby) and focus on the task at hand.

People habituate easily to distracting stimuli in the environment and are able to focus on important things like school, work, or a conversation with a friend. Indeed, we habituate to most circumstances of our lives, whether good or bad, in a relatively short period and maintain a somewhat consistent level of happiness over time.

While it's true that people get a surge of happiness when they make a big purchase or experience a change in life circumstances--like starting a new job--they soon generally return to their original state of happiness. There are two primary factors that researchers use to explain this phenomenon.

First, there is a strong genetic basis to happiness that determines a person's happiness "set point." We must think of this genetic set point as being like the thermostat in our homes. After the temperature in the house rises (or happiness increases), the heat turns off until the house cools down to the temperature set on the thermostat (the happiness set point).

In happiness terms, this "cooling off" process is referred to as "hedonic adaptation," the second factor in adapting to life circumstances.


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Holly H. Schiffrin is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington and PCI Certified Parent Coach who conducts research in the area of positive psychology and child development.