😞 Unhappy Habit #2: 💸 Fixate on Money

• 5 min read

If you want to build lasting happiness, one way to approach it is to identify out which behaviors are making you unhappy and stop doing them. An easy way to do this is to replace an unhappy habit with a happy one.

In that vein, I wanted to share one of the key behaviors that I've been working hard to get myself to stop doing. Given I grew up in suburban America, materialism and capitalism is deeply embedded into my psyche. No matter what I do, my mind tends to gravitate towards buying nice things and the accumulation of wealth.

However, the research on this is clear that neither nice things nor financial success makes us happy. That leads me to this week's Unhappy Habit:

Fixating on financial success has negative consequences for various aspects of psychological well-being.

Research Overview

The stronger the goal for financial success, the lower the satisfaction with family life, regardless of household income [1].

The negative impact of aspiring for financial success is correlated to how highly the individual prioritizes financial success over other values such as morality, relationships, spirituality and health [2].

The key insight here is that fixating on money causes us to behave in ways that undermine our core human needs. This works on an individual and planetary scale...

Additionally, the centrality of financial success in a person's life is also correlated to lower social productivity and more behavior disorders.

Core Concept

The American Dream has perpetuated the myth that achieving financial success is the route to happiness, when in fact, the research shows this isn't true*.

As we know from Dr. BJ Fogg's work at Stanford University, most people mistakenly believe that information leads to action, when in fact behavior science shows us this just isn't true.

Otherwise every time someone said "Money doesn't make you happy" you'd be sorted.

My working hypothesis

Our aspirations in life are driven by our most frequent thought patterns, which in turn cultivate our desires. Sure, we could rewrite our life goals on a piece of paper, but more importantly we need to address the underlying belief system and unconscious streams that make up our identity.

If we can replace our thoughts about money (which we know don't make us happy) with behaviors that the science shows makes us happy, we will habitually invest our time and attention towards long-term happiness.

In order to solve for this behavioral challenge, we need to look to behavior science for a repeatable model for change.

Solving for behavior change

The Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) is the major breakthrough that gives us the insight that behavior is systematic. It provides a repeatable model for how to stop undesirable behaviors and how to replace them with desirable ones.

FBM says that a behavior only happens when three things come together: Motivation, Ability and a Prompt. If one of these elements is missing, the behavior will not occur.

It sounds too good to be true, but it works—systematically. (I highly recommend reading Tiny Habits to learn more).

Behavior Tips

BJ trains all his designers to first remove the source of the prompt when you want to stop a behavior from occurring. So if you want to stop thinking about money, identify the main source of the prompts that cause you to think about money.

1) Identify the prompt

Take a guess at your #1 source of prompts for thinking about money. If this unhappy habit resonates with you, it's probably something you do every day or multiple times a day.

The research shows that for most people, the source of prompts are two things: Watching TV (Netflix anyone?) and using social media. Not only are they sources of prompts for thinking about money, they are highly correlated to increased materialist desires and life dissatisfaction [6].

Think about when in your daily routine this prompt occurs. Is it at night before going to bed? Is it while standing in line waiting for the bus? Is it in the morning while drinking coffee?

You can write down a behavior phrase if it's helpful "Watching NFL every Sunday afternoon" or "Scrolling through Instagram while waiting in line".

2) Replace the prompt

Now you have a phrase that describes the behavior you do in your existing routine which triggers you to think about money.

The magic of behavior design is that we can use this prompt in our existing routine as a prompt for us to do behaviors that make us happy. All you need to do is replace this unhappy habit with a behavior that fits a few criteria:

  1. The science shows builds lasting happiness
  2. You actually want to do
  3. You think would be a good fit for replacing the behavior phrase you chose above
  4. Occurs at a frequency you feel is appropriate

Now I'm not suggesting that you stop watching TV or using social media entirely. I'm just suggesting you identify the main source of prompts for thinking about money and pick one specific moment in your routine that you can replace with a happy habit.

What the science says makes us happy

If you're not sure what the science of well-being has to say, here's a list of all some previous issues of Happy Habits which might be good candidates:

  1. 🖊  Gratitude Journal
  2. 🤔 Three Good Things
  3. ⌛️ Savor The Last Moment
  4. ✍🏻 Write a Letter to Forgive
  5. ☕️ Buy a Coffee for a Stranger
  6. 🌬 Three-Minute Breathing Space
  7. 🍂  Forest Bathing (Shirin Yoku)
  8. 💬 Chat with Someone in Line

Write down your intervention

You can write down a short sentence that acts as a commitment to yourself, for example:

Every day while waiting in line for a bus, I'm going to chat with someone in line instead of scrolling through social media.

or

On the first Sunday of every month, I'm going to volunteer at a homeless shelter instead of watching football.

3) Try it, and celebrate

The next time your chosen prompt occurs, give it a go. Celebrate the success you've just found in experimenting with your own happiness and well-being—regardless of the outcome.

If it doesn't work for you, try something new.

Conclusion

If you want to be happy, the science shows that you need to fixate on something other than financial success as your primary life goal.

In order to subvert the constant barrage from media that tells us we need money to be happy, I recommend selectively replacing these prompts from with behaviors that will make you happy.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

As always

Be kind to yourself and only do what you want to do!

No guilt and no shame when playing the happiness game.

Have a great week!

Footnotes

*Beyond a baseline threshold of household income where basic needs are met, more money does not result in more happiness [3]. The 2005 American Survey for National Norms (263,710 students from 385 schools) found that the number one aspiration amongst American college freshman was being "Very well off financially" [4]. The same survey in 1967 found that the number one aspiration was to "Develop a meaningful philosophy on life".

This seismic shift in priorities is a major contributing factor to anxiety and depression. It's no wonder that suicide is currently the second leading cause of death worldwide amongst people aged 15-29 [5].

Citations

  1. Nickerson C, Schwarz N, Diener E, Kahneman D. Zeroing in on the Dark Side of the American Dream: A Closer Look at the Negative Consequences of the Goal for Financial Success. Psychological Science. 2003;14(6):531-536. doi:10.1046/j.0956-7976.2003.psci_1461.x
  2.  Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 410–422. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.65.2.410
  3. Happiness: Unlocking The Mysteries between Psychological and Financial Wealth by Ed Deiner
  4. The American Freshman: National Norms  for Fall 2005
  5. Mental Health — WHO
  6. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need by Juliet B. Schor

Resources

  1. To Have or To Be? by Erich Fromm
  2. Courtney E. Martin's Ted Talk: The New American Dream
← 😴 Happy Habit #11: Sleep 7-8 Hours Per Night
🗣 Happy Habit #10: Speak to Yourself Like a Friend →

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