Would you pay more cash to experience intense happiness or to avoid intense embarrassment? Your answer may depend on the culture you live in.
A team led by Hi Lau at the University of Hong Kong used this “willingness to pay” approach to find out how students in Britain and Hong Kong value different emotions. For the first study, 97 British students chose how much they’d be willing to spend (from £10 to £150, in £10 increments) to enjoy various positive emotions intensely for an hour, or to to avoid various negative emotions for an hour.
Overall, the students were willing to pay more to experience positive emotions than to avoid negative ones. An hour’s worth of love was the most valued, followed by an hour’s worth of happiness and then an hour without sadness. Bottom of the list was disgust – the students were only prepared to pay an average of £43 to avoid an hour of disgust (compared with £95 to have an hour of love).
Next, the research took in the choices of 46 students in Hong Kong as well as 41 Brits, and the range of emotions was expanded. The findings for the British students was largely a replication of the first study, with a greater willingness to pay for positive emotions than to avoid negative ones. The Hong Kong students showed a more balanced set of responses, being just as willing to pay to avoid negative emotions as to experience positive ones. Focusing on specific emotions, the Brits said they’d pay more than the Hong Kong students for happiness, delight and calm; the Hong Kong students meanwhile said they’d pay more than the Brits to avoid regret, embarrassment and frustration.
Lau’s team, including University of Cambridge researcher Simone Schnall, said their approach offers a new, advantageous way to gauge people’s attitudes towards emotions. The findings complement questionnaire-based research on people’s beliefs about which emotions matter most to them, and their beliefs about which emotions will have more of an impact on their long-term wellbeing. There’s some evidence that an absence of negative emotion is more important for wellbeing than positive emotion, in which case the British participants in the current study may have been unwise in their choices. “By putting price-tags on emotions we might come closer to understanding the value of human experience in order to aid policies at enhancing well-being,” the researchers said.
Lau, H., White, M., and Schnall, S. (2012). Quantifying the Value of Emotions Using a Willingness to Pay Approach. Journal of Happiness Studies DOI: 10.1007/s10902-012-9394-7