From Jay Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane to Tony Soprano and Walter White, the woefully wealthy are among the seminal figures of literature, film and television. A thriving industry of gossipy, star-studded magazines and websites combines these two ideas, extolling the lifestyles of the rich and famous while exposing the sadness of celebrity.
All of which raises the question: Is the golden road paved with misery?
Yes, in a lot of cases, according to a growing body of research exploring the connection between wealth and happiness. Studies in behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and neuroscience are providing new insights into how a changing American economy and the wiring of the human brain can make life on easy street feel like a slog.
Researchers have also identified counterintuitive strategies successful people can use to stave off these negative effects.
The mind often leads people to engage in behaviors that create stress and diminish happiness, but researchers have identified strategies to counter them and promote better use of time. Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University, author of “The Organized Mind,” offers these suggestions:
Don’t overthink organization. It’s not about having rows and rows of carefully color-coded filing cabinets — it’s about what works for you, and about “cognitive economy.”
Don’t spend more time on an organizational decision than it’s worth. It’s O.K. to throw miscellaneous items into a junk drawer and miscellaneous papers into a “junk” file folder on your computer or in your office.
Take five or 10 minutes each month to do a “pre-mortem,” looking at all the things that could go wrong in your home or work life, and that could cause you to lose time or money. Then do something about them.
Use your cellphone camera as a memory aid, photographing your parking spot in a crowded mall or airport parking lot; also photograph your credit cards, front and back, in case they are stolen.
Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside and author of “The Myths of Happiness,” recommends these steps to counter unproductive impulses:
Perform intentional acts of kindness, like letting a car ahead of you in line or buying a colleague coffee or leaving your spouse a nice note.
Pick a photograph from your phone’s photo album and think about the happy memories it brings you.
Luxuriate in your morning shower or your walk to work or a croissant or coffee or whatever; savor it.
Send a quick email to express gratitude to someone you have never done that for.
Do something every day that makes you feel tranquil or calm.
Make no mistake, it is better to be rich than poor — psychologically as well as materially. Levels of depression, anxiety and stress diminish as incomes rise. What has puzzled researchers is that the psychological benefits of wealth seem to stop accruing once people reach an income of about $75,000 a year.
“The question is, What are the factors that dampen the rewards of income?” said Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. “Why doesn’t earning even more money — beyond a certain level — make us feel even happier and more satisfied?”
The main culprit, he said, is the growing demands of work. For millenniums, leisure was wealth’s bedfellow. The rich were different because they worked less. The tables began to turn in America during the 1960s, when inherited privilege gave way to educational credentials and advancement became more closely tied to merit.
Today, says Erik Hurst, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, “the more education you have, the less time you have for leisure.”
In modern America, the tireless Stakhanovites are not the coal miners of Soviet lore but highly compensated professionals, corporate executives and entrepreneurs who brag about eating lunch at their desks and never taking a vacation. Twenty-five percent of all salaried workers said they worked at least 60 hours per week, according to a Gallup poll from August. Fifty percent said they worked at least 50 hours a week, compared with 26 percent of hourly workers. These numbers may be lower than reality as the rise of technology, especially cellphones, email and social media, means many people are never really off the clock.
This helps explain Dr. Schieman’s finding that “excessive job pressure, role blurring, when work spills over into nonwork situations, and work-family conflict” have led to a phenomenon he calls the “stress of high status.” He said “the feeling of always being rushed for time” coupled with an inability to disengage from work allows stress to “accumulate and compound.”
Like many overscheduled children, wealthy people tend to fill their leisure time with obligations. “People with greater income tend to devote relatively more of their time to work, compulsory nonworking activities (such as shopping and child care), and active leisure (such as exercise),” Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on the science of decision-making, and his co-authors observed in a seminal paper in 2006. “Being wealthy is often a powerful predictor that people spend less time doing pleasurable things and more time doing compulsory things and feeling stressed.”
In addition to external pressures and behaviors, human nature can exacerbate stress. Recent scientific discoveries paradoxically suggest that people can seize more control of their lives and become happier by recognizing that their brains have a mind of their own, leading them to think and act in ways at odds with their interests and goals. Modern executives can gain an edge by seeing their minds as one more thing to manage.
An important place to start, according to Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a Princeton psychologist, is by understanding how the brain responds to deprivation (whether of time or money). “When we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it,” they write in their book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.” “The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled need. For the hungry, that need is food. For the busy it might be a project that needs to be finished.”
As Dr. Kahneman and his longtime collaborator, David A. Schkade, observed: “Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.” Looming deadlines tend to focus the mind, often inspiring purpose and creativity. But they also capture much of the brain’s finite mental capacity. It presses out other needs, often leading to tunnel vision. A busy executive may want to go out for lunch, take a vacation or see her daughter’s softball game. These breaks might even help her be more effective at work. But her mind naturally focuses on the crisis du jour. “Immediate scarcity looms large,” they write, “and important things unrelated to it will be neglected.”
This can generate even more stress. In the modern workplace, where deadlines come like blades on a windmill, one after the other, a singular focus on work can become a way of life. This phenomenon has roots in our evolutionary history, said Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and author of “The Organized Mind.” Our ancestors had many challenges, but the perils of information overload and multitasking were not among them.
Many modern humans must navigate a Times Square world of constant stimulation with brains that struggle to handle even a few things at once. This is especially challenging for people with high-pressure jobs who spend their days making crucial decisions, Dr. Levitin said.
When it comes to energy expenditure, he explained, the brain has a hard time distinguishing between momentous and banal choices. We may consciously understand that deciding where to expand our company is more important than whether to have eggs or cereal for breakfast, but to the brain, a decision is a decision. “Even small decisions burn through neuro-resources at a fast rate,” Dr. Levitin said in a phone interview.
Because even money can’t buy more cerebral bandwidth (yet), Dr. Levitin said making important decisions early in the day was an effective strategy for reducing “decision fatigue.” Also helpful is offloading information and responsibility. This can include tried and true techniques such as prioritized to-do lists. Instead of micromanaging, “push authority downward,” allowing others to make smaller decisions so you can give more attention to bigger ones.
Dr. Levitin, whose first job was being a personal assistant to a wealthy person, said this could include having others filter correspondence and email. And by all means, he said, focus on one thing at a time. “Happy, successful people,” he said, “are aware of their limitations.”
While some researchers explore the stress of high status, others are examining how mind management can help the wealthy get more bang for their bucks. Michael I. Norton, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a co-author of “Happy Money: The Science of Spending Smarter,” noted that many people work long hours because they enjoy their jobs. And the more one earns, the more rational the decision to keep working can seem. But, he said, after people have taken care of their basic needs, money does not buy happiness.
“We are working on a paper based on a survey of millionaires that shows that whether you have $1 million or $10 million in net worth, your happiness is the same,” he said. “It’s not that it’s bad to accumulate money; it’s that people are focusing on something that doesn’t pay off all that much.”
Dr. Norton does not blame consumer culture for the misguided pursuit of wealth so much as evolutionary biology. Status, he said, is an important psychological marker; people instinctively compare themselves to those around them. Possessions have long been attractive markers of status because they turn measuring into the relatively simple act of counting.
But in terms of happiness, the urge to engage in conspicuous consumption is problematic. It often becomes an insidious loop of dissatisfaction, Dr. Norton explained, because we are wired to “constantly compare ourselves upward.”
“If I used to fly economy and now I fly business class,” he said, “I start to compare myself to those in first class.”
A larger house, faster car and fancier shoes do provide immediate gratification, but the pleasure they bring tends to dissipate quickly. This is rooted in the mind’s natural tendency to adapt, to take what it has for granted, and look ahead, said Thomas D. Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University. This human capacity for adaptation explains much more than why a new boat sparks fresh desires.
“Research shows that when truly bad things happen — the loss of a child, or a limb — it takes most people a surprisingly short amount of time to return to their previous level of happiness,” Dr. Gilovich said. “This is also true of good things, which is why winning the Pulitzer Prize only makes you the happiest person in the world for a while.”
In response, Dr. Gilovich said, we can exploit other habits of the mind to increase happiness. His research shows that people derive more enduring happiness from experiences than material goods. This response is also rooted in our evolutionary history. “In the past, being excluded from the group was often a death sentence,” he said. “Nowadays, it is easier to go it alone, but we still value experiences because they connect us with other people in ways that material goods do not.”
This helps explains findings that people gain more happiness from spending money on others, rather than on themselves. Experiences can also deliver more happiness because the mind often sees the past through rose-colored glasses. This is why the hot, crowded trip to Disneyland often becomes a warm memory, or people tend to look back nostalgically on a troubled youth. “We romanticize the past,” Dr. Gilovich said.
While science can help people manage their minds, happiness still “takes work,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who wrote “The Myths of Happiness.” “You have to be intentional,” she said. “Find those things that work to make you happy and engaged, and take into account what research shows as main sources of happiness, such as things that help you grow as a person, connect with other people and contribute to society.”
Resist the natural tendency to look ahead, she said. “Just reminding ourselves to appreciate what we have, having a sense of gratitude, can make a big difference,” she said.
Especially if one wants to be great without becoming Gatsby.