Money, Gadgets and Life
Of the millions of blogs published each year, many of the most popular fall into one of two two categories: technology (gadgets in particular) and money. The ironic parallelism to this phenomenon is that people like to spend a lot of their money on gadgets: cell phones, MP3 players, netbooks, and various other cool whiz bang stuff.
Do Gadgets Make us Happy?
Our appetite for gadgets seems insatiable. Too often we don’t let our lack of cash on hand get in the way of a full course meal at Best Buy or the Apple Store.
What happiness do we actually gain from all of this spending on gadgetry? Well, if you believe in hedonic adaptation, we gain nothing (except perhaps increased credit card balances.)
“Hedonic adaptation” is a concept that has been around the behavioral science community for a while. It recently came to my attention through the experiences of an early retiree. I found his commentary interesting so I decided to pursue it a little deeper.
The theory of hedonic adaptation is that humans can and will adapt to their life circumstances – good and bad – to the point that they will be equally happy in either. It’s sort of like a personal reversion to the mean. If you grade a B+ in happiness when things are good, you will eventually grade out to a B+ when things are bad. If you want to read more about the science behind the theory, follow this link to the “Hedonic Adaptation” article by Frederick and Loewenstein.
Turning to gadgetry, have you ever spent any time around the Amish? They are about as ungadgetated (my new word) as you can get. There is an Amish community near our vacation home in Kentucky. Those folks seem happy to me. Clearly they don’t spend any money on technology. So how can they be as happy as those of us who walk around with credit cards dedicated to the care and feeding of iPhones and iPods? Hedonic adaptation.
In 2005, MIT Technology Review published a fascinating article on technology and happiness. Summarizing some of the statistical data, the authors reported the following:
[If] you ask Americans how happy they are, you find that they are no happier than they were in 1946 (which is when formal surveys of happiness started). In fact, the percentage of people who say they’re very happy has fallen slightly since the early 1970s — even though the income of people born in 1940 has increased, on average, 116 percent over the course of their working lives.
The Japanese fared no better:
Between 1960 and the late 1980s, Japan’s economy was utterly transformed, as the nation went from a low-cost supplier of cheap manufactured goods to what is perhaps the worlds most technologically sophisticated society. Over that stretch, the country’s GDP quintupled. And yet by the late 1980s, the Japanese said they were no happier than they had been in 1960.
And how about those Amish who are completely technology deprived?
The Pennsylvania Amish, when asked how much they agree with the statement: You are satisfied with your life (using a scale of 1 to 10), turn out to be as happy as the members of the Forbes 400.
In a sense, this is another variation on the theme of “money doesn’t buy happiness.” Most people claim to believe this phrase when they say it or hear it. If so, why do we spend so much of our money on personal technology? It can’t be that it saves us time. If you believe that, watch all of the crackberry addicts on weekends or even on vacation. Personal technology can be a black hole which gobbles up time and money, all the while annoying people around you who are trying to enjoy life.
The Positive Side of Hedonic Adaptation
Granted there are contrarian views on whether all of us eventually adapt to our circumstances and revert to our normal happiness level. I’m not ready to throw away my all of my tech stuff but I like the theory. I hope it applies to those of us who have been financially affected by economic upheavals in 2008 and 2009. Maybe some of us will retire with a smaller retirement nest egg. But if we can adapt, maybe we won’t care.
Does anyone have any personal experience with testing this theory?
Photo credit: SlipstreamJC