Why Counting Money Can Make You Happier

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We all know money buys luxuries like sports cars and Manolo Blahniks, necessities like groceries, and intangibles like preferential treatment. (When was the last time Donald Trump waited in line for anything?) Now there is evidence that just counting money can produce valuable psychological benefits. According to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, thumbing through your cash can reduce emotional and physical pain as well as increase feelings of internal strength, fearlessness and confidence. The study also finds that there is an equally true flip side to this coin: When people are reminded of their recent spending, they report higher levels of both psychological and physical distress.

Focusing on the symbolic power of money, the study's authors, Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University, Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, started with a simple hypothesis: reminders of money can alter how people experience social interactions — especially social acceptance and rejection.

To test the idea, the researchers took the following approach: 84 students at a Chinese university were divided into two groups. One group counted 80 large-denomination bills; the other group parceled out 80 pieces of plain paper. All participants then played an online video game in which, using game controls, they could throw a ball and play catch with other Internet players. But the game was rigged so that after 10 throws, half the students would no longer get the ball thrown to them, while the rest of the students continued to play catch. When the game ended, participants who had been excluded from the second round of catch rated their level of social distress and how strong they felt. Those who had counted money before being socially excluded reported lower levels of social distress than those who had counted only paper. Additionally, the participants who had counted money also reported greater feelings of inner strength and self-sufficiency.

To see if counting money also reduces physical pain — previous research indicates that psychological and physical pain are experienced in a similar way — the researchers repeated the earlier social-exclusion test, except this time they replaced the ball game with a pain-sensitivity task, in which half the participants were put in a moderate-pain condition (their hands were immersed in warm water), while the other half were subjected to a high-pain condition (hands were immersed in very hot water). Again, those who had counted money reported lower levels of pain.

To complete their study, the researchers conducted additional experiments. They also found that reminders of having spent money aggravated feelings of social distress and that both social rejection and ideas of physical discomfort fueled participants' desire for money as well as made them less generous.

So what does any of this mean for people in the real world — especially in this down-and-out economy? One implication, not entirely surprising, is that a job loss may pose an additional challenge. A layoff is a kind of rejection, and that could increase a person's desire for money at the same time he or she has less than before, says Vohs of the University of Minnesota. Put another way: "The recession can make [people] crave what they can't have," she says.

Fortunately, the research also offers a possible solution for landing a new job. "It might be handy to sit down and count a stack of money before going out to the job interview," says Baumeister of Florida State University. Another option? "Set up a screensaver that shows money," says Vohs. "That might help ameliorate some of those feelings of being rejected."

And while money can't buy love, counting it could help you find that special person. "Maybe young men who are going out to bars to try to meet women should count money," muses Baumeister. "I gather they have to approach a lot and get rejected a lot. I am not a specialist in bars, but it would make the men feel strong and probably make them not as bothered about being rejected over and over."