The Happiness Mystique, Redux

My mother has a simple recipe that works for her (and me): stop eating before you feel full. When I share this philosophy with Americans, I’m often rewarded with a puzzled look: how do you know you feel full before your tummy aches? In today’s New York Times, an article by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton coins the term, “underindulgence,” a concept that’s also novel for its abstemious approach to life. In their forthcoming book, “Happy Money: The Science of Spending,” they describe research into the relationship between personal revenue and happiness. In sum, their conclusion is that beyond a basic minimum— scientists set this amount to be $75,000 in the United States– one does not benefit from greater happiness proportional to the increments in wealth. This was not news to me.

A more interesting point made by the authors was that spending money on others does accrue greater happiness. For instance, if three people were to be given $1 million as from a lottery win, the person who chooses to spend it all on satisfying his or her every whim fares worse on the scientists’ happiness scale than do the remaining two participants, one of whom puts it all in savings and uses it sparingly or the other who gives it all to charity. This reminds me of the rabbinical teaching that giving tzedakah (righteousness, a Jewish concept more encompassing than charity) is a powerful reward in of itself, because you are choosing to do what is right by God.

Dunn and Norton further state that a decade of research has shown that spending on material possessions– stuff– is less rewarding than spending on experiences. Finally, they offered a crucial point about underindulgence— indulging less than one’s resources allow— “holds the key to getting more happiness for your money.” In a study by their student Jordi Quoidbach, a group of chocolate lovers were given one piece of the sweet treat and then pledged to abstain from chocolate for one week. Another group pledged to eat as much chocolate as desired and they were given a two-pound bag to help them towards this goal. When all the participants returned a week later, only those chocolate lovers who’d refrained from indulging during the week enjoyed the chocolate as much as during the initial session. Everyone who’s fasted for Yom Kippur (or starved for real) could understand the exquisite appreciation for our food afterwards.

So, the new word for us is “underindulgence. ” This means different things to different people— whether choosing against a second helping of a favorite food, staying up all night, or more stuff when our closets are full. Underindulgence– one day my spellchecker may stop highlighting this word!