Archive for November 13th, 2007

Here’s something that doesn’t make sense (cents) — paying your taxes can be satisfying.

Researchers at the University of Oregon gave 19 women participants $100 and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they watched their money go to the food bank through mandatory taxation, and as they made choices about whether to give more money voluntarily or keep it for themselves.

They found that two regions in the brain – the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens – fired when subjects saw the charity get the money. The activation was even larger when people gave the money voluntarily, instead of just paying it as taxes. These brain regions are the same ones that fire when basic needs such as food and pleasures are satisfied.

The study, according to one of the researchers, reflects the balancing act that every society must face. “What this shows to someone who designs tax policy is that taxes aren’t all bad,” Ulrich Mayr, professor of psychology, said. “Paying taxes can make citizens happy. People are, to varying degrees, pure altruists. On top of that they like that warm glow they get from charitable giving. Until now we couldn’t trace that in the brain.”

For a more complete description of the study, click here.

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Money may not buy you happiness, only more chores.

Numerous studies have looked at how money fits into one’s overall evaluation of happiness and the results may surprise you.

For example, one study showed that income played an insignificant role in day-to-day happiness. Researchers expected that those who made less than $20,000 a year would spend 32 percent more of their time in a bad mood than those that had an annual income greater than $100,000. In reality, the low-income group spent only 12 percent more time in a bad mood than their wealthier counterparts.

Researchers also examined Bureau of Labor Statistics data and found that those with higher incomes had more chores and less fun. According to government statistics, men who make more than $100,000 a year spend 19.9 percent of their time on passive leisure activities such as watching television and socializing. Meanwhile, men whose annual income were less than $20,000 spent more than 34 percent of their time dedicated to passive leisure.

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Whether we like to admit it or not, past events or pleasures figure prominently in our current or even future satisfactions.

This makes perfect sense. Humans (and other animals) tend to repeat behavior that rewards them. Get a standing ovation for a part in a play when you are in eighth grade, for example, and you are more likely to want to repeat that behavior for similar applause somewhere down the road. Or get joy from learning how to bake an apple pie with your aunt at Thanksgiving and you are highly likely to want to re-create that experience when you are an adult.

We all carve out current satisfactions from past pleasures. Called conditioned satisfactions, these can be direct or indirect depending on the past experience. For example, the red carpet you vaguely remember associated with your favorite birthday may trigger an indirect satisfaction in all things red that you don’t even consciously realize.

There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the more exciting or arousing the originating source of satisfaction, the more durable that satisfaction will be over time. In other words, thrill a child with his first professional baseball game under the lights at night and you are likely to have a fan for life.

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No wonder the U.S. divorce rate hovers near 50%.

Couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) comprise a complex satisfaction system of competing and shared interests, individual stimulation needs, and reactions to societal pressures.


Take a young couple. Sharing a life together means experiencing new adventures, sharing intimate thoughts, adding new friends and and generally exponentially increasing one’s resources. But later — when the newness wears off — does the couple “settle in” at equal satisfaction levels or does one person become dissatisfied with things? Is one person bored and needs greater stimulation? Is another person unhappy with the other person’s behavior or dissatisfied with that person’s communication skills? Does a lack of one resource — money — cause other dissatisfactions — to the point that when one adds up the pluses and minuses — the result is unhappiness?

In our society, we typically don’t spend enough time thinking through and even articulating what satisfactions we want from our partner before that partnership is consummated. We assume things will take care of themselves and, sadly, they don’t — at least for half of the U.S. population. Perhaps what we all need is a Satisfaction Audit — administered by a registered psychologist or therapist and required before we’re granted a marriage certificate. That may save a lot of heartache somewhere down the split in the road.

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First, the semi-good news. The divorce rate in the U.S. appears to be declining (albeit slightly) since its peak in 1981. Rough estimates say that 41% of all married couples divorce.

Now, the not-so-good news. Research suggests that divorce leaves a lasting effect on satisfaction levels. Thus, even though a rebounding effect can and does typically occur after a divorce, the level of satisfaction does not return to baseline (the level of satisfaction felt prior to the divorce).

In an article published in a 2005 issue of Psychological Science, study author Dr. Richard Lucas measured the life changes before and after divorce of people in a group of 30,000 people in Germany. His conclusion — we shouldn’t assume that time heals all wounds. “Instead, some people may never adapt to some life events, at least not without intervention,” he concludes.

Note: this post is a re-write of an article written for PsychCentral by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

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