Happiness, equity theory, and why we tend to think that we should get what we deserve — and deserve what we get.

One of the most interesting and complicated issues within the study of happiness is the relationship between money and happiness. Although some folks seem content to say, “Money can’t buy happiness,” I think that relationship is a bit more complicated.

Because of my interest in this topic, I read Shira Boss’s fascinating book, Green With Envy. It was interesting in many ways – for example, she seeks to explode the taboo against talking about money, and provides several detailed accouts of people’s money problems, including her own. If you like the blog My Open Wallet, you’ll like this book.

I was most intrigued, however, by Boss’s brief discussion of equity theory – a phenomenon I’d observed in the world, without knowing the name for it.

Equity theory, according to Boss, is the psychological term for our tendency to feel uneasy when we have much more or much less than someone else, without knowing why. People generally have a belief that we get what we deserve – and deserve what we get.

Now, this is obvious when something bad and undeserved happens. People ask “Why me?” when cancer strikes or a hurricane hits.

But people also feel discomfort when something good and undeserved happens. People who inherit a lot of money (as opposed to people who earn a lot of money), for example, or people who are strikingly attractive, see that without any effort on their parts, they’re very fortunate, and that can cause discomfort. (I know, you’re thinking, throw some of that discomfort my way! But while “it’s a good problem to have,” as they say, it does mess with people’s heads.)

The more I think about it, the more interesting equity theory becomes.

It explains, for example, the attraction of the idea of karma, even to people who don’t hold karma as a religious belief. There’s a sense that karma is a force in the world – not just that if you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice to you, etc., but that there’s some force in the universe, like gravity, that operates to bring about just desserts.

It explains the fact that certain professions breed arrogance. If you earn a wildly huge amount of money – say, with a hedge fund – equity theory would mean that you’d want to believe that if you’ve made that much money, you must deserve that much money. You wouldn’t say to yourself, “Right place, right time,” or feel lucky. You’d feel brilliant.

It explains people’s strange reactions to lottery winnings. Think of Hurley on Lost — his lottery winnings made him happy, then made things very strange for him (well, I suppose in his case, it was a bit more than the lottery at work!). But lottery weirdness happens in real life. Consider one woman who, after she won $2.8 million, was sued by her son’s teenage friend, whom she’d asked to pray for her. Equity theory helps explains the lawsuit. It didn’t seem possible that this woman could just win for no reason; she must have earned it in some way – according to the lawsuit, by virtue of the teenager’s prayers.

Have you seen any examples of equity theory at work in the world?

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Chris at The Art of Non-Conformity blog did an interesting set of interviews on the question of the financial payoff to following your passion. He was nice enough to include me in the discussion.

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Tennyson.

“We needs must love the highest when we see it.” –Tennyson

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If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Examine your heuristics.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I spent a month of my Happiness Project testing possible psychological short-cuts to happiness, and this led me to the concept of heuristics.

Heuristics are “rules of thumb,” the quick, common-sense principles people apply to solve a problem or make a decision. They aren’t “rules for living” that you consciously try to apply; rather, they are deeply imbedded, often unconscious, rules that you use to come to a decision to answer a question or decide a course of action.

Usually heuristics are useful, though sometimes they lead to cognitive bias. Take the availability heuristic: people predict the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can come up with an example. This is often helpful (is a tornado likely to hit Manhattan?), but sometimes people’s judgment is skewed because the vividness of examples makes an event seem more likely than it actually is. People become very worried about child abduction, say, when in fact, it’s a very rare occurrence.
I realized that I have my own idiosyncratic collection of “heuristics” for making decisions and setting priorities. Well, maybe these don’t fit the precise definition of “heuristics”—but they are rules of thumb that I applied when deciding what to think or how to act, mostly without quite realizing that I was using them. They flickered through my brain so quickly that I had to make a real effort to detect them, but I identified a handful:

My children are my most important priority.
Try to exercise every day.
People don’t notice my mistakes and flaws as much as I think.
The Big Man is my top priority.
“Yes” comes right away; “no” never comes.
Get some work done every day.
Whenever possible, choose vegetables.
I know as much as most people.
Try to attend any party or event to which I’m invited.
My parents are almost always right.
Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.
If I’m not sure whether to include some text in my writing, cut it out.
When making a choice about what to do, choose work.

Looking at these rules showed me something. Several of them were difficult to balance. How could my kids, the Big Man, and work all be top priorities? Also, I was pretty sure that the Big Man operated under the heuristic of “Try to skip practically any event to which I’m invited.” That explained certain ongoing marital debates.

Some of my heuristics were unhelpful. “I don’t have time” ran through my head dozens of times each day. I worked to change that heuristic to “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.”

I asked my friends if they had any personal heuristics, and I collected quite a few:
There’s no wrong decision.
Always say hello.
People in business, small or large, will take advantage of you if they can.
What would my mother do?
Actually, this is good news.
Say yes.
This is the fun part.
Do nothing, go nowhere.
Do everything all at once.

What heuristics are shaping your behavior? Though I may be mis-using the term. I mean – what are the rules of thumb that you apply to figure out what to think or do? Not what you WISH you thought (“Always take a moment to appreciate the sunshine”) but what you actually think (“Any parent who misses a school function has bad values”).

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On Friday afternoons I usually find myself spending a little time reading all the fun articles that during the week I’m too disciplined to pursue, and I got a kick out of reading this story about the invention of the flying car.

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If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

The happiness of blogging.

I’ve been getting a kick out of my new gig, writing twice a week for my blog on RealSimple.com, Note to Self. Take a look! (My post today, about happiness tips from Sydney Smith in 1820, is getting a lot of discussion on Fark. Go figure.)

I like checking out my fellow-bloggers on the site, like Nearly Wed and Manic Mommies. Of the new blogs I’ve discovered on RealSimple.com, my favorite is Adventures in Chaos. Hilarious. Best of all, it’s fun to be in the same virtual neighborhood with the folks from Unclutterer, one of my very favorite blogs anywhere.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

This Wednesday: Seven things to say in a meeting to make yourself look good and someone else look bad.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 7 things to say in a meeting to make yourself look good and someone else look bad.

Ah, meetings. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Being happy at work is important, of course. Being with other people generally boosts mood, and ideally, meetings should be a source of energy, ideas, and collegiality. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Meetings are also a place where people jockey for position, work out disagreements (nicely or not-so-nicely), and hurt each other’s feelings.

In one of my previous job incarnations, I worked in a meeting-intensive environment. After a while, I noticed that one person, when in a meeting, consistently made me feel angry and defensive—but I couldn’t figure out why. He never attacked me, in fact, he was nice to me. Or so I thought. Then I took a closer look at the kinds of things he said.

If you’re looking for ways to assert power over other people, and in the process, very likely annoy or undermine them, try the following tips. Conversely, if you’re hoping NOT to annoy or undermine other people, avoid talking this way:

1. “I don’t need all the details. Let’s just get to the bottom line.” You imply that others are quibblers and small-minded technicians, while deflecting the possible need to master complicated details yourself.

2. “Well, these are the facts.” You emphasize that you attend to hard facts, while implying that others are distracted by prejudice, sentiment, and assumption.

3. “You might be right.” You seem open-minded while simultaneously undermining someone else’s authority and credibility.

4. “I’m wondering about ____. Pat, please get back to us on this.” You demonstrate your habit of reasoned decision-making, while making Pat (who may or may not actually report to you) do the necessary work and report back.

5. “You did a great job on that, Pat!” You show a positive attitude, while showing that you’re in the position to judge and condescend to Pat.

6. “I think what Pat is trying to say is…” You show that you’re a good listener and give credit to others, while demonstrating that you can take Pat’s simple thought further than Pat could.

7. “I can see why you might think that.” Variant: “I used to think that, too.” You sound sympathetic, while indicating that you’ve moved far ahead in understanding.

As I read this list, I realize that a person could say all these things without being undermining. A lot depends on context and motivation. Still, it’s useful to think about how your seemingly helpful comment might strike another person in the room!

What other actions make you unhappy in a meeting? When two people write each other notes or whisper, when someone is obviously reading unrelated material or a Blackberry…what am I forgetting?

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There’s a great post on First Ourselves about tips for forging stronger family connections. Lots of great suggestions here — some of which I’ve included in my Happiness Project so far, but I also got some new ideas for things to try.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.