Money may ruin the moment

A new UBC study has found that money – having it, seeing it, thinking about it – can impair our ability to enjoy everyday pleasures.

It is the latest research by UBC Psychology Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Dunn, who investigates the complex relationship between money and happiness.

“Money can help make us healthier and more secure and increases our control over life,” Dunn says. “However, research shows that money has a surprisingly small effect on our happiness. We want to understand why.”

Previous studies by Dunn’s Social Cognition and Emotion Lab have found that spending money on others can make us feel happy, while stingy financial decisions can carry negative downstream consequences for health.

Now comes this new study: the first evidence that money can impair our ability to enjoy everyday positive experiences, published in the latest issue of Psychological Science. Taken together, Dunn says her studies help us better understand the relationship between money and happiness.

“Our previous research suggested that people tend to spend money on things that don’t make them happy,” says Dunn, who joined UBC five years ago after stints at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of New South Wales. “Now we see that the very idea of money can reduce our ability to enjoy the little pleasures of daily life.”

Working with visiting graduate student Jordi Quoidbach from Belgium’s University of Liege, who led the study, Dunn asked more than 350 participants – adults with salaries ranging from $225,000 to $10,500 – to imagine how they would respond to a number of pleasurable scenarios, including discovering a beautiful waterfall while hiking and going on a romantic getaway.

For each situation, participants reported whether they would savour the experience by displaying positive emotions, staying in the moment, sharing the experience with others, or anticipating or reminiscing about it.

The results were surprising. When researchers plotted participants’ responses according to salary, they found that wealthier participants reported savoring these pleasurable experiences less.

But money’s negative influence didn’t end there. Just showing participants images of money at key moments in the experience had the same negative effect on savouring as actual individual differences in wealth.

And in a second study, participants who were shown a photograph of money spent less time eating a piece of chocolate and exhibited less enjoyment of it, compared to people who were shown a neutral photograph.

Dunn cautions that this doesn’t mean people should be turning down raises. “Overall, money does have a small positive effect on happiness,” she says. “It’s just much smaller than people tend to think. And this study helps to explain why.”

“It is a reality of life that we need money to support ourselves and our families,” says Dunn, who recently spoke at a Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education symposium on money, generosity and happiness along with fellow UBC happiness researcher John Helliwell.

“What this study does is provide us is more insight into how money affects us: constantly thinking about money or being surrounded by images of it, can reduce our ability to enjoy the pleasures of daily life, like sunny days and chocolate bars.”

For more information on Dunn’s research, visit: