Episode 129 – Happy Money with Elizabeth Dunn

Money can’t buy you happiness – unless you’re smart about it. Dr Elizabeth Dunn reveals the surprising ways in which money CAN make us happier, and also why it so often fails to do so. Along the way we discuss the importance of getting rid of the long words, even if you’re an academic, because:

‘If you truly understand a topic, you should be able to explain it in simple language.’

Academic research can be an invaluable resource for the business book author, and there’s lots of tips here on how to find it and use it without compromising the readability of your book.


Elizabeth’s site: https://dunn.psych.ubc.ca/

Elizabeth on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DunnHappyLab

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Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, and with me today is Dr Elizabeth Dunn, who is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Her research explores how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She’s the co-author of “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending” with Dr Michael Norton.

She speaks regularly on money and happiness, and her work had appeared in top journals, been featured in hundreds of media outlets around the world, and she’s also, living the happiness thing of course, an avid surfer and skier. Welcome to the show, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Thank you so much for having me.

Alison Jones:                        Oh, it’s really good to have you here. I’m quite jealous actually, because I do think that positive psychology has got to be the most fun area of social science research ever. So we can just kick off, if you tell us a few of your favourite findings in your research over the last few years?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  One of my favourite findings from my own research shows basically that it’s really worthwhile to pay for help with the tasks that you dread. For a long time, I’ve had a, maybe disagreement is too strong, but a difference of opinion with my husband about whether it is worthwhile to pay for things, help with things like cleaning that I am terrible at and that I hate, and with a full time job and a child, are really hard to fit in.

Now I can tell him that science shows that I am right because my amazing former student, Ashley Whillans, and I, have done now a great deal of research looking at this idea that in fact people who use their money to buy help with the things that they hate doing are really better off than those who don’t.

That is, using our money to actually buy ourselves time seems to be a pretty effective way to promote happiness.

Alison Jones:                        That’s awesome. To be honest, it doesn’t surprise me at all. The quality of my life when I got a cleaner was massively improved. What I can’t help thinking, though, is that your hypothesis might have not been entirely disinterested when you went into that research.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  I would say I only do research I’m really interested in, but I also let the data talk. There’s a lot of things that I believed when I started doing the research that then turned out to be a little bit different than I anticipated. Sometimes the data just clearly show that my preconception was wrong.

Alison Jones:                        Let’s go onto that then, because that’s really intriguing. What really surprised you? I mean, that’s a great finding about spending money on basically buying back your time and buying the right not to do the stuff that you really don’t like and you aren’t very good at, and just sucks the life out of you. Was there anything that really surprised you about money and happiness particularly?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  One of the things that’s surprising to me from this research is just how quickly we adapt to having more income and also just as you’re climbing the income ladder, your happiness will increase, so as you go from when I was in grad school, I was living pretty close to the poverty line, and it did make a difference for my happiness when suddenly I started making a real grown-up salary and got my first job, actually started getting a real paycheck, that made a big difference.

But what’s kind of surprising and I think just alludes us sometimes when we’re making life decisions is that the happiness benefits of income actually start to level off at a surprisingly low level. In the United States, once people are making around $75,000 a year, additional income ceases to have any barren whatsoever on how much people laugh or smile on a given day.

This tells us then that the initial big return on investment that you get from making more money in terms of your happiness, it works up to a point and then if you keep climbing that income ladder, you just won’t get that same kind of return in terms of your happiness.

Alison Jones:                        That is fascinating, isn’t it? Because I’ll bet you if you asked people, “What one thing would make you happier?” They’d say, “An extra $10,000 in the pay packet.”

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Right, and the problem is that that continues as you climb the income ladder, so even millionaires will think that, “Hey, if I had X amount more money, of course I would be happier.” In reality, as you go from a pretty comfortable existence to being even toward the wealthy end of the spectrum, those increases in happiness really get pretty minuscule. They don’t disappear completely, but they become very, very small.

I’ve been trying to take this into account in my own life. Now that I’ve gotten promoted and am a full professor, I try to resist some of the temptations to just do things on the side that would make extra money, because I realise that, “Hey, I’m not going to get that huge boost in happiness from an additional $10,000 than I would have when I was a starving grad student.”

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, so you might as well just use the time and do some fun stuff.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Exactly.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, love it. It’s so wise. Brilliant. Now, thinking about writing for a minute, obviously most of the writing that you have done in the course of your career has been academic writing. That’s what you do. You’re an academic, so you’ve been writing articles in journals, and journals are aimed at other academics in the field, and they talk in a particular way with particular language. So, when you wrote “Happy Money,” that’s not written for other academics. That’s written for us. That’s written for the guy in the street. How did you find that shift from writing for academics for writing for frankly anybody who needs the book?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  You know, I love that shift, because it forces you to think about what makes research interesting. If I was reading a study and I was like, “Ugh, I cannot get excited about this,” I would either think, “Okay, you know what? It’s just, I’m not even going to include it.” Or I would think, “Okay, how can I make this interesting? How can I bring this to life and how can I explain it in a way that’s clear and engaging?”

The real lesson for me is that those same strategies actually should apply to academic writing. I think academic writing is often painful to read. We can make it so much better by just writing like we’re writing for a general audience.

Alison Jones:                        But there’s an obfuscation that happens in academic writing. The longer the words, the more learned the writer somehow, and there’s almost, I don’t know, it’s quite vulnerable making isn’t it? To strip that away and write in a more accessible way, because somehow you don’t look as clever.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah, you know, I actually find my graduate students when they’re first starting out, they want to write these complicated sentences with these fancy words. I’m always saying to them, “Can you just say that more simply? Like, what’s the simplest way you could say that and still mean exactly the same thing?” Often those complicated words are there, I think to shield us, to make us feel like we know so much.

But really, if you truly understand a topic, I think you should be able to explain it in simple language.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, this is my theory actually. I think that much highfalutin language is actually designed to cover up the fact that the author is deeply insecure about what they’re saying.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Well it’s so easy to obscure your message when you use overly complicated language that it’s often not clear to anybody what the person is saying, including the writer, right? Once simplify it down, everyone’s going to be on the same page as to whether you’re actually saying anything.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, which is vulnerable making, as I say, but powerful when you do it. I’m interested, you said before you’re looking at a particularly dry research finding, and you’re thinking, “Okay, how do I make this interesting?” Well, how do you? What tricks and techniques do you use to make people understand why that matters?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah. I mean, one of the big things that I do is if I’m reading a study that is just not that exciting, but the finding matters, I try to find a different study, like a study that demonstrates the same idea in a more compelling and vivid way. In our research, that we do, we often conduct field experiments where we go out to real public places like we recently conducted a study in a restaurant where we manipulated whether people were using their phones or not during dinner.

It’s not hard to describe that study in a way that’s clear and interesting, because it’s happening out in the real world with activities that people just do in real life and understand. So, although there may be other studies that demonstrate the same idea that we were looking at in that study, I think I would choose that study to describe because it maps onto people’s real lived experience.

That’s one way in which the experience of writing for the broader public has actually guided the research that I do. I try to think, “Can we do this study in a way that will be really vivid and concrete for people who hear about it?”

Alison Jones:                        That’s brilliant. Of course, if you’re listening and you’re not an academic, you might be thinking, “Well, that’s all very well for Dr Elizabeth, because she can have access to all this stuff” but actually, I think we as the general public have access to primary research in a way that we never used to. Google Scholar is an incredible resource, I mean, there’s so many open access journals out there. If you are writing a book that involves drawing on this material, then actually it’s really worth ferreting around a bit.

Then once you’ve found an interesting study, often that will cite other studies in the field, and it can be a rabbit hole, but it can also be an incredibly rich seam to mine for your business book.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Absolutely, and I mean, I would also say so many authors today, academic authors put their academic papers on their own websites. All of my papers are accessible or almost all of my papers are accessible through my website. It is possible to get access to those original studies, and then you can look and see, often in one paper we’ll report four or five different studies, and if I read a paper that has a bunch of different studies, I try to look for, “What’s the most interesting, engaging one that I can tell a concrete vivid story about?” And that’s the one I talk about.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. And of course, you didn’t write “Happy Money” on your own. You co-authored it, and I’m always interested in this, because people do it in such different ways. I’ve had co-authors on who sat down together and literally wrote every word together, and I’ve had co-authors on who basically didn’t speak and handed each other their finished manuscripts. What was your experience and what did you discover worked best in terms of the processes and tools as you were collaborating?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Well so my co-author and I had been friends for a long time and we’d written a number of academic papers together, so I think we really had a leg up because we could almost share a brain. It’s fun to do that, so we would first talk through either whatever it was we were working on, say a particular chapter, talk through it, like what it should contain and brainstorm different ideas of research, relevant research that we would include, as well as people we knew or had contacts to that might be interesting to interview.

And then, one of us would put together a detailed outline of the chapter, and then the other person would look at that detailed outline. I think that was really one of the most valuable things we did was just reviewing each other’s work carefully at the stage of the detailed outline. Because I have a terrible habit of falling in love with my sentences.

Once I’ve crafted a sentence that I’m happy with, I do not want anyone messing with it. So, in that way, before I was making any beautiful sentences or sentences I found beautiful, we were first going over the content and figuring out what the content should be. It’s just so much easier to cut things again on the same page, or realise that we have different conceptions of what the chapter should include and where it should be going. At that stage, I find then at the actual writing stage.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. Absolutely. Because you’ve not got anything invested in it at that stage, have you? These are just ideas and they’re ugly and bare and bald, and you can do what you like with them. As you say, it’s when you’ve started sweating and crafting your sentences that you can’t bear to change things. That’s hilarious.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Exactly. Although, we certainly would change each other sentences and there are sentences in our book that each of us changed and changed back and changed back every time until someone would give up. Finally…

Alison Jones:                        That’s so funny.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  …there’d be an argument as to why the sentence just had to be a certain way.

Alison Jones:                        It does sound as though you’ve had a very similar approach. You basically almost mirrored each other’s work, did you? You didn’t hive off a set of tasks to Michael because he had a particular skill and you because you were better at something else? Was it fairly evenly spread?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Well, I would say I took the lead on most of the chapters, so I would be coming up with a detailed outline and he would be giving feedback and then I’d be writing a draught and he’d be giving feedback. That was our process for not all of the chapters, but most of them. We definitely did split things up but I would say every sentence in the book got some love from both of us.

Alison Jones:                        And sometimes a tug of war kind of love.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah, sometimes a love/hate kind of deal.

Alison Jones:                        Were you together a lot while you were thrashing through this? Or were you doing it online and what kind of collaborative tools were you using if so?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  We were almost always apart. I have had the experience of being with him and writing with him in person, and it’s wonderful. I love doing that, but because he’s at Harvard and I’m on the opposite side of the continent, that just didn’t occur very often.

Alison Jones:                        That’s not going to work.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah. Neither of us is very high tech, so we would pretty much … You are not going to get any exciting tips for cool collaborative tools from us, because we would pretty much use Word and then like email it back and forth to each other. But that pretty low tech approach worked well for us, and I think also just talking a lot.

I’m a big believer in talking about writing, so rather than just writing comments to each other, we would read what the other had written, and then hop on the phone together and just talk through it. Because sometimes you need to give people what can feel like pretty harsh feedback about their beautifully crafted sentences, and so being able to do that, we’re good friends, and so being able to laugh about it rather than write these comments just in black and white, that can be taken the wrong way, I think was a really good strategy, at least for us.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, I love that. Low tech, and actually talking. Brilliant, yeah. It may not be the coolest tech tool, but it’s a really, really effective one. Brilliant.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah, and I think one thing that might be useful for people to know about is there’s research in my field showing that people think that they can convey emotional tone more effectively over email than is actually possible. So, for example, people had a really hard time successfully detecting sarcasm over email. Similarly, if you’re trying to say something in a supportive tone over email, that just might not come through.

You add in the voice, and the human mind has evolved to pick up on an incredibly rich set of cues from the voice, and so just adding in the voice basically makes it possible to communicate so much more effectively. That becomes particularly important when you’re dealing with something that can be a sensitive issue, like someone’s sentences.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, I get that. Yes. When you sit down on your own to write, what does that look like? How do you get going? How do you keep going? Have you got a routine? How do you get into the zone?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah. I mean, I would say coffee is like the key thing…

Alison Jones:                        Good to hear.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  I often work at coffee shops, sometimes with friends. For me, the morning is the time that I am able to get good writing done. Once in a while, I manage to accomplish some decent writing later in the day, but for me, the morning is the golden time, and so setting aside that time and just refusing to do anything else even when you’re doing an interview with somebody on the other side of the world and making them stay up really late to record it with you, is worthwhile.

Because I just need that morning time blocked off to work on my writing, and if I can even go more extreme than I do, so with the book I actually wrote most of the chapters of the book in cool, faraway places, which I realise is not an option for everybody, but for me this was before my son before, so I had the luxury of going off and writing our chapter on buying experiences in a beautiful Airbnb in Barcelona.

I wrote another chapter then later while I was secretly pregnant and couldn’t tell anybody, I went to my friend’s destination wedding in Mexico, and everyone was sleeping off their hangovers, and I was getting up at 6:00 a.m. to write. Going off to faraway places where you’re not having all of the little tiny challenges of daily life infringing on your time, I think can make a huge difference.

Alison Jones:                        That’s really interesting, because I totally agree, and I just had to get away. I didn’t go anywhere exotic unfortunately, I went to an Airbnb in the middle of the forest in Wiltshire, I think. But it was just that physical separation and being surrounded by new things and just being on your own as well that was really powerful. But I think there is something about, if you can get somewhere stimulating, beautiful, different, it probably does something in your brain that makes you more creative, doesn’t it? Because you’re literally starting out somewhere different, which means you can accomplish something different.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah, for me, it really makes a difference, and I think, I don’t know if it’s about the inspiring environment or just not being in my familiar routine where it’s so easy for me to say, “Oh yeah, sure. I’ll do this for you and that for you” and whatever, and chip away at the writing time. I think for me, it’s just the time protection that that distance creates is really the driving factor. Not even going so far away I think can make a big difference as well.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah. There’s no dishwasher to be emptied and all that kind of stuff that just sucks your attention and your energy at home. It’s incredible, isn’t it?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Mm-hmm.

Alison Jones:                        If there’s somebody listening to this show who is struggling getting started or keeping going, I mean that is a great tip. Do you have any other top tips for first time authors who might be listening?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  I mean, I would say starting with an outline is really helpful. Even just making a… Don’t try and make it pretty, don’t try and make it interesting. Just try to get down on paper your outline of all of the stuff you could talk about. What I do is I start with a tonne of notes that I’m typing in, and then I move those around to create an outline. That just doesn’t feel so daunting because I’m not sitting there with a blank piece of paper and trying to write a compelling first sentence.

That feels like a lot, but just like, “Okay, I need to take some notes on these different things. All right, I need to arrange these notes a bit.” And then suddenly you have this detailed outline in front of you, and then when you sit down to actually write the real draught, you have the ingredients all laid out for you.

It’s like if you had a sous-chef prepare everything in the kitchen. It doesn’t seem so hard to chop the cucumbers and get everything laid out, but once it’s all nicely laid out, it doesn’t seem so hard either to walk in and make the beautiful meal.

Alison Jones:                        That’s a brilliant metaphor. I love that. I wish I had a sous-chef who would just prepare my book for me and then I could go and do the fun stuff, and write it. I suppose that’s where a ghostwriter comes in isn’t it? A development editor. That’s brilliant. What a lovely metaphor. Thank you. I always ask people as well to recommend someone as a guest onto the show, which of course is why you’re here. So who do you think would be a great guest for the show? Someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  One guest I would definitely recommend would be Dan Pink. He recently wrote the book “When,” and I just had my entire lab group, all of my students, read this book because I think it provides some really compelling insights about a topic that we often don’t consider which is instead of thinking about what should we do, when should we do it? I found the insights that he pulled together in that book really helpful.

Alison Jones:                        Do you know, I couldn’t agree more. I think you’re the second person to recommend him and I got the book … I haven’t actually reached out to him, invited him on the podcast yet, but I have read the book and absolutely fascinating. It’s funny, because he calls it a when to rather than a how to book, that’s how he puts it, isn’t it?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  He does a great job discussing the research.

Alison Jones:                        He does, doesn’t he?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  I think he provides a great model for how to convey research in a way that’s clear and interesting, but also accurate. Sometimes I wince when I read books that talk about psychology research, because they’re just really literate, but that book was wince free for me. That’s a real achievement.

Alison Jones:                        Wow. High praise indeed. Is there a business book, I mean apart from “When” actually, which take as read, you should go and read that book. It is brilliant. Of course, apart from “Happy Money,” ditto, but is there another business book that you would recommend that everyone listening to the podcast should read? One that you think really exemplifies the best of the genre.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Yeah, I mean, I would actually suggest one that’s perhaps only on the fringe of the genre, but that I think the genre would really benefit from, which is the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. They are two outstanding academics and I think this book, it’s not necessarily written with a business audience in mind, but it has insights that I think are incredibly valuable for that business audience.

Alison Jones:                        That sounds really interesting. I hadn’t heard of it, so I love it when people recommend books that I haven’t heard of. So many books, so little time. Brilliant. Thank you. I shall look into that. Elizabeth, if people want to find out more about you, more about “Happy Money,” more about your research and all that cool stuff about paying for cleaners, where should they go?

Elizabeth Dunn:                  Well, all they have to do really is Google me. My name pops up pretty easily and my main website has information about all of my work. It has my publications, media stories, as well as pretty much anything you could want to know about me, and probably more. That’s just dunn.psych.ubc.ca.

Alison Jones:                        Awesome, and I will put that link up on the show notes at ExtraordinaryBusinessBooks.com, as usual. What a fascinating conversation, thank you so much for your time today.

Elizabeth Dunn:                  My pleasure. Thanks for having me.


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