Empty Substitution

“Empty Substitution” – why earning more may not lead to more happiness.

I read an article last week about how earning more money does not necessarily equate to more happiness.

I suspect that there is a threshold line with money, somewhere just above where you start to feel a bit comfortable and you don’t have to count every pound, where you maximise your life-money bell curve. After that the extra money associated with more senior jobs probably doesn’t give you any extra happiness and may even put you in marginal happiness decline.

Typically as people move to better-paying jobs they implement what I call empty substitution. You start to pay for things you didn’t pay for before on the basis of saving time. Yet quite often the time you save goes into working longer rather than getting more recreation or family time.

Alternatively it doesn’t make your feel better. For example, in lower income days with small children we would always pack a picnic lunch to go to the beach. Now we just buy lunch. But I miss the picnics. Buying lunch saves a bit of time but it is an empty substitution.

I read some research a while ago that suggested, for most, once they had a comfortable home they could afford, a reliable car, the ability to afford some entertainment on a fairly regular basis and enough for a holiday somewhere once a year, their life satisfaction (on a purely material basis) was optimised. Mansions, limousines and the French Rivera can actually be a soulless show for the benefit of others. There is nothing sadder than watching someone flog themselves purely to increase marginal wealth on the wrong side of the bell curve.

It’s an interesting thought and may not apply to everyone as we are motivated by different things. Some have intrinsic motivations and derive satisfaction by doing something of real interest to them. Others are motivated by more extrinsic markers – such as job titles and money.

The theories of motivation and job satisfaction are too broad to address in this blog. In fact, the Harvard Business Review article  “One more time, how do you motivate employees?” is far and away the most requested off-print of all time. But I like the simplicity of Empty Substitution as it resonates with my managing my own work-life balance.

Posted in Motivation.