‘Happinomics’: the science of money and emotion

Photo by Dreamstime.
Photo by Dreamstime.

Who doesn’t think they’d be happier if they had more money to spend on themselves or donate to others? That was the question Boston public radio host Robin Young posed to an audience of about 200 community members at the Museum of Science last Thursday.

In an event hosted by Northeastern’s Affective Science Institute, Young moderated a panel discussion on the science and economics of happiness, dubbed “happinomics” by the media.

“Emotional science is on the rise,” Northeastern psychology professor David DeSteno said in an opening talk on the definition of affective science. “Northeastern is hoping to build a hub in Boston and beyond to study how emotional states affect people at all levels.” From economics to bullying to the way we design new products, he said, our emotions affect the way we think and act.

Thursday’s event was the first in a series of lectures to be hosted by the ASI addressing various aspects of affective science. Psychologist-turned-economist Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, Cornell University economist Robert Frank and psychology professor Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University each presented their views and data on happiness as the crowd attentively listened for the secret to a life of bliss.

“It turns out the major correlates are exactly the things you’d expect — be kind to others, make more friends. It’s not ‘stand on your head and hum through your nose,’” said Gilbert, whose research consistently suggests that humans “mispredict” what will make us happy.

So it’s no wonder that Norton’s data surprises many of us — giving money away results in happier research subjects than when they spend it on themselves. “It’s strange to look at whether money will make people happy without knowing what they do with the money,” he said.

Regardless of absolute financial value, Frank said, our happiness is determined by how it compares to that of our neighbors: “The inescapable influence of context shapes our evaluations of the things we have,” he said.

Collectively, these perspectives help explain why, despite the fact that our nation has more money to spend — and is spending it more — than ever before, the United States as a whole has not grown happier over the last few decades, according to Frank.

Young reminded the audience that Denmark is consistently ranked among the happiest countries. “So what are the Danes doing right?” she asked the panel. Their response? The Danes have very low income inequality and very positive attitudes toward government.

In the latter half of the event, Young moved the discussion from data and results to what we can do with those results as a society. Frank suggested imposing incentives and regulations to “tamp down spending on steroids,” while Norton suggested not just encouraging citizens to take the actions that are shown to make us happier (spending money on others) but dis-incentivizing the behaviors that won’t.

Gilbert responded with an important question of his own: “Why are we leaping immediately from science to what rules should we impose on people based on the science?” He suggested a very simple solution — education. If people learn about these research findings, perhaps they’ll be more likely to pursue healthier emotional behaviors.

The directors of the Northeastern Affective Science Institute agree; this event represents their initial step of educational outreach to the public regarding the science of emotion.

The happinomics event naturally raises the question of whether the United States should continue to pursue a higher GDP or adopt some other standard like Gross National Happiness, which has been embraced by countries as disparate as Bhutan and the United Kingdom. Science, not opinion, is likely to provide the best answers.