Why We Earn Beyond Needs at the Cost of Happiness

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Overearning is a new phenomenon in human history. It means that we earn beyond our needs. It is only possible to overearn (i.e., accumulate resources) due to the efficiency and advantages of modern technology. This seems nice and innocuous, indeed, it never hurts to earn more. However, overearning has a downside as well.

When we overearn, we forgo leisure and put our mental healths at risk because of the (possible) health consequences associated with working. Thus, overearning may, in fact, reduce happiness in the long run.

Overearning is different from workaholism since workaholism suggests an addiction to work, whereas overearning suggests an ignorance of the consequences of work and excessive earning.

Hsee and colleagues (2013) have tested the theory of overearning. In short, their experiment revealed that people have a tendency to overearn at the cost of happiness. This is because people earn until they get fatigued instead of until they have enough.

This is what the authors refer to as mindless accumulation. They also found that people work about the same regardless of earning rates (salary). Because of this, overearning is more likely to occur when earning rates are high.

The authors  suggest a number of reasons for overearning, such as the enjoyment of work, uncertainty about the future, and desires to give and bequeath wealth to others.

Furthermore, they suggest that people focus on nominal earning rather than consumption utilities, according to the medium-maximization theory. This means that people mistake a high income with happiness.

Evolutionary theory might also explain it. Throughout the human history, earning rates have been low, so to earn as much as possible has been a way to improve chances of survival.

Earlier, working as much as possible has not resulted in overearning, since earning rates have been low. It is only due to the advantages of modern technology that we are able to overearn, but evolution might explain why we forgo leisure and keep working even tough we have “enough”.

Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen

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