The Beverly Hillbillies: European Caveman Version

cavemen1According to the British blog Ananova, two poor Hungarian “cavemen” are set to inherit their share of about $5 billion.  The windfall comes after their estranged grandmother living in Germany (who apparently didn’t know she even had the grandsons) passed away.

If the story’s true, they can probably use the cash.  The brothers live in a cave outside Budapest and scratch out a living selling whatever abandoned scrap metal and candy they find in the streets of the city.  (It appears there’s a market for everything, including recycled candy pedaled by cavemen.)

The main focus of their financial upgrade appears to be their love lives: “All we really had was each other — no women would look at us living in a cave,” said one of the brothers.  This kind of reminds me of my entire high school dating experience.

But will they be happy a year from now?  In some sense, almost certainly. Happiness rises with the log of income, and when you’re starting with pennies and living in a cave, money can buy a significant amount of happiness.  But after about the first $50,000 per year, the relationship between wealth and happiness flattens out pretty dramatically.  (Of course, with $5 billion one can afford even high-priced incremental happiness.)

Even without the highly probable and non-trivial tsunami of gold diggers and scam artists set to seduce the two forty-somethings, the men face an uphill climb: People are generally horrific at knowing what makes them happy in a sustainable way.  The difficulty we have at what psychologists call affective forecasting isn’t limited to hapless European cavemen.  (It’s a real treat to have the opportunity to legitimately use the word “cavemen” — forgive me if I overdo it here.)  We’re all quite bad at it.

The joy we derived from that tattoo we got at age 24 fades quickly, much faster than the ink.  Half of all marriages — so full of joy and potential and crockpots at the start — end in divorce.  (The other half end in death. Enjoy.) And well-designed studies suggest that we enjoy TV shows with commercials just as much or more as those without them.  That’s the hedonic treadmill at work: We so quickly accommodate to the status quo that it no longer feels incrementally better than the old status quo, rapidly becomes our new reference point; the ads break up the experience enough to keep us from accommodating to the entertainment.

Most of us are just really bad at happy.

So what can the Hungarian cavemen do?  Here are a few proven ways to sustainably increase subjective well being:

    • Periodically consider the present and ask, “Is this moment my friend or my enemy?”  You’ll be surprised how often you’re missing out on a really lovely here and now because you’re regretting the past or worrying about the future.  This is a big deal.
    • Do something unexpected and nice for someone else.  Buy a cup of coffee for the stranger standing behind you in line.  There’s a good chance they’ll do the same for the person behind them, and you’ll have created your own micro wave of happiness.
    • Reflect once a day (maybe right as you crawl into bed) about something for which you’re thankful.  And listen to other people when they do the same.  Sounds hokey, but this works.  (Benjamin Franklin made this a daily discipline, and things worked out pretty well for him.)
    • When you’re anxious or overstressed, stop and whip yourself up a quick batch of joy.  This is actually easier than it sounds: Consider a very small and concrete thing that on your death bed you’d pay anything to have just one more minute to enjoy.  You’ll find that even the most mundane things (e.g., the way your clean socks feel on your feet right now) become delicious, even when you’re in a pickle or a jam.  (You are wearing clean socks, right?)

None of these, of course, take a multibillion dollar inheritance.  But either way, here’s to the cavemen: May the money make them happier, and if it doesn’t, may they rediscover the things that always did!

(Note: this entry originally appeared at consumerology.com)

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