THE BLOG
04/21/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

Mindless Accumulation Can Come at Expense of Happiness

How much unpleasantness would you be willing to endure to earn pieces of Dove chocolate? For some of us who particularly enjoy chocolate, we may be willing to endure quite a lot! But what if you only had five minutes to eat the pieces you earned and had to leave the rest behind?

Scholars wanted to explore why some people accumulate money and possessions that far exceed their needs? And why do they continue to do so, even if the process of accumulation causes discomfort? So they set up an experiment, which you can read about in The New York Times article, "You Can't Take It With You, But You Still Want More."

In Phase I of the experiment, participants were told they could earn chocolates by sitting at a computer with a headset on and listening to really unpleasant sounds a certain number of times. Some people, designated as High Earners, had to listen fewer times than those designated as Low Earners to earn each piece.

Participants also were told that regardless of how many pieces they earned, they would have just five minutes during Phase II of the experiment to eat the chocolates they had earned; they would have to forfeit any uneaten chocolates, no matter how many they earned. Participants were informed that they can decide how many chocolates to earn in Phase I and how many to eat in Phase II, and that their only objective was to make themselves as happy as possible during the experiment. With that information in hand, participants were then asked to predict how many pieces they would eat.

The High Earners earned more than three times the number of chocolates they predicted they could eat (3.75), yet consumed less than half of their earned chocolates (4.26 of 10.74). On average, the Low Earners earned fewer chocolates than they predicted they could eat. Both groups listened to the harsh noise for about the same length of time.

The research results suggest that we have an instinct to earn more than we can consume, even to the point where doing so makes us unhappy. The authors of the "Overearning" study called the concept "mindless accumulation." As Christopher Hsee, one of the study's authors and a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, told the New York Times, "It's a waste of effort. But once people are in action, they can't stop."

It doesn't really make sense, does it? Why would we choose to suffer for something that we don't need and can't even use?

There was good news in a second finding from the study. Researchers also learned "that prompting individuals to consider the consequences of their earnings or denying them excessive earnings can disrupt mindless accumulation and enhance happiness."

As a wealth manager, I often see mindless accumulation come into play. But when reminded that mindless accumulation doesn't make sense, these same overearners often make different choices.

Let's review an example. Imagine you have an opportunity to investment in a private business. The potential rate of return looks promising, but you would have to spend a considerable amount of time learning about the company before investing. Your initial reaction might be, "If the expected return is high enough, it is worth the time."

But what if you looked at this opportunity from a different perspective? What if you decided that the investment is worth it only if you had a use for the extra money? If you don't need the money, wouldn't you be spending your time -- your most precious resource -- to get something you don't need?

"Mindless accumulation" is accumulating more and more regardless of whether we need it and what it costs us. There is no reward for who dies with the most. All our extra money becomes the uneaten chocolates we leave behind.

When we remind ourselves of our most important goals, we can choose not to make more than we need and redirect our time and attention to doing things we enjoy as opposed to working more to earn money we would never spend.

We can choose happiness over money. Good choice.

David Geller is the author of Wealth & Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. He is the CEO of Atlanta-based GV Financial Advisors and is available for professional speaking engagements.