April 15th: Gratitude Day (Op-ed)

April 15th: Gratitude Day

By Eric Schoenberg  

Ask a group of people to choose their favorite day of the year and you'll get a lot of different answers -- a birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving. Ask them to choose their least favorite day of the year and the odds are good many will choose the same day, April 15th, tax day.

As a former investment banker and successful private investor, I have more reasons than most to dislike tax day. But in my current role as a research psychologist, I'd like to offer my fellow high-income taxpayers some advice on why April 15th should be celebrated rather than feared.

A growing body of research on "hedonic" psychology supports a common intuition that people are not always accurate in predicting what will make them happier. Money is an important example: though people expend a great deal of time pursuing more money, many studies suggest that the old saying is right -- money can't buy happiness.

One reason why is that we define happiness more by comparing ourselves with others than on some absolute standard. While this might seem to justify the pursuit of money as a rational attempt to improve one's relative position, the problem is that we don't compare ourselves with just anybody but instead with people like ourselves, a definition that is ever changing. Thus, a junior investment banker is happy if he makes more than his fellow junior bankers, but a partner is only happy if she makes more than other partners.

Psychologists have given this process the disturbing name of the "hedonic treadmill." But for those of us who dislike picturing ourselves as forever chasing a carrot that is perpetually out of reach, there is an alternative. Rather than working ever longer hours to catch those ahead of us, we can become happier if we simply focus on comparing ourselves with those who are behind.

So when I write that big check on April 15, I make myself happier by thinking about the millions of Americans who pay nothing in income taxes because they don't have much income. To be clear, this works not because I find pleasure in contemplating the misfortunes of others, but rather because thinking this way makes me grateful for my own good fortune.

Researchers have found that gratitude is a psychological wonder drug, increasing positive emotions like happiness and hopefulness and decreasing negative ones like depression and anxiety. And wealthy Americans have plenty to be grateful about: we live in a society that has given us opportunities to accumulate wealth and the security and social stability that allow us to enjoy it. We should also be grateful that for us paying our taxes only means foregoing some added luxuries, while for millions of lower income Americans, it may mean foregoing real necessities.

So this April 15th, I suggest you try a little psychological jujitsu on yourself: the bigger the check, the more grateful you should feel, and the happier you'll be.

Eric Schoenberg is a member of Responsible Wealth and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia Business School.

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