"What I wouldn't give for a moment of peace and calm." This was the thought I had a few days ago on a particularly hectic day running errands, running my business, and parenting my four-and-a-half month old. Work and life pressures are intense for all of us today, and we have become a culture that is "addicted to busy."
As you reflect on your life for a moment, how much would you pay to avoid feeling embarrassed at work, or to avoid feeling guilty for missing your daughter's recital for an out-of-town business meeting? How much is that hour of calm worth to you? The value of experiencing positive emotions and avoiding negative ones was recently explored in a study where researchers created a value-based ranking of emotions using a willingness to pay approach.
Your balance of positive and negative emotions is an important influence on your subjective well-being - the way you think and feel about life. But is it better for well-being to pursue positive emotions or avoid negative ones? According to a series of studies across cultures, the results are mixed. One study of college students across 40 countries showed that positive emotions were a stronger influence on well-being than negative emotions. In some cultures, each negative event had nearly twice the impact on well-being as each positive event. Other studies show that positive and negative emotions had roughly the same impact on well-being.
More interestingly, researchers wondered what people would do to achieve their most desired emotions - would they be willing to spend time, effort and even money to pursue or avoid those emotions? To answer that question, researchers developed a value-based ranking of different emotions by having people assign hypothetical values to them. Study participants (in two separate studies across two different cultures) were asked to state the amount they would pay to experience a range of positive emotions and avoid certain negative emotions. They allocated a value after being asked the following question: "Think of a specific time in your life you were very ______ (insert the emotion). How much would you be willing to pay to re-create (or avoid) this feeling for one hour?"
Here is how the research subjects spent their dollars*:
** $44.30 to experience calm
** $79.07 to experience happiness
** $92.81 to avoid sadness
** $99.82 to avoid embarrassment
** $106.27 to avoid regret
Only one emotion was more valuable than avoiding regret, and that was love. Love was worth $113.56 to these folks. While human beings may spend a lot of time and energy (and hypothetical dollars) avoiding negative emotions, it appears that bottom line, we just want to feel loved. Love was also the most valuable emotion cited in the first study as well.
I think it would be interesting to extend these studies beyond cultural comparisons to look at differences among generations and even life stages. When I was a young lawyer, I could have cared less about calm because I was driven to work lots of hours and make my mark. Today, I would pay much more. I would guess that no matter how old you are, you would pay a great deal to avoid regret.
So, how would you allocate your emotional dollars?
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a lawyer turned stress and resilience expert. Having burned out at the end of her law practice, she now works with organizations and individuals to build stress resilience. You can connect with Paula and to learn more about her work here:
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* The study done by Hi Po Bobo Lau and her team collected willingness to pay data from two different cultures: the first study involved a group of British participants, and the second study involved a group of Hong Kong Chinese participants. I used the numbers from the 2nd study.