Contrary to popular belief, money can indeed buy happiness. Here's how to invest those dirhams so they profit you personally. Neil Parmar reports
For Bec Schwartz, immersing herself in her favourite field is about more than just fulfilling a passion. It's about feeling pure happiness.
The UAE resident, who moved here from Qatar last summer, found past jobs in accounting and marketing enjoyable enough. But her latest job, as a business development manager for Haddins Fitness in Zayed Sports City, gets her a step closer to her preferred interest: sports. Yet it's not enough that she regularly plays in a women's netball league. Ms Schwartz derives her greatest pleasure from travelling the world to cheer on elite athletes that represent her native land of Australia.
"I love to travel for sports events," says Ms Schwartz.
There was that Dh6,000 trip to Paris for the Tour de France a couple of years ago, followed by a three-day excursion to New York City last year for the US Masters Golf Tournament. Complete with airfare, a hotel just off Central Park and the cost of a big blow-up kangaroo that she brought along with her, the trip put her back Dh6,000 or so. Then there was last month's visit to India for a Cricket World Cup match, where Ms Schwartz watched in delight as the Australian team defeated its long-time arch-rival, New Zealand. "It was amazing," she says of the Dh2,500 experience. "I am thinking about my next trip."
Ms Schwartz is not the only one doling out dirhams for happiness. When it comes to measuring the intersection where wealth meets well-being, residents of the Emirates rank relatively high on a global scale.
The latest Legatum Prosperity Index, which scores countries on how prosperous they are in terms of not only their GDP, but also how happy, healthy and free their citizens are, found that the UAE topped the Mena region - and came in 30th in the world overall.
Yet there are steps individuals can take to boost their happiness even further, whether or not that entails hopping on a plane with an inflatable marsupial.
Surprisingly, research has discovered that cash can sometimes do the trick. Some of the best strategies - on the surface, anyway - would be enough to make even the most lax financial planner cringe: think experiential splurges, or simply handing bills over to a stranger. But dig a little deeper into academic findings and you'll realise that the secret behind buying happiness lies in how, exactly, that money gets spent - and how much of it is needed. Here's where to start:
For decades, economists believed that as people got richer they didn't necessarily get much happier. The logic went that once a person raked in enough money to meet their basic needs, anything beyond that did little to raise their happiness.
There's been plenty of convincing evidence in support of this theory. In the UK, for instance, hairdressers consistently score among the happiest employees in one workplace survey. It's not because they're well tipped, but because their social ties with co-workers and clients seem to offset meagre earnings compared with many other professions.
Separately, a joint study conducted between a Canadian and an American university found people grossly underestimate the happiness levels of those who earn less money. Folks making US$10,000 (Dh36,730) a year were expected to rate themselves just 13 out of 100 on a happiness scale, or only 23 out of 100 if they brought in $25,000 annually. In reality, low-income earners measured at least three times higher on the happiness scale.
But in recent years, a couple of experts have thrown a wrinkle into this classic theory. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania analysed decades of data sets, including polls and surveys on happiness, as well as income figures. In a paper, they argued that higher incomes do induce happiness and that satisfaction is highest in wealthy nations. "People in rich countries are happier than people in poor countries," says Mr Wolfers. "The implications are huge.
"If you thought that economically developed countries were no happier than undeveloped countries, then you would urge governments not to waste too much time trying to attain higher levels of economic development.
"Instead, our findings suggest that economic development is a powerful force [for] raising happiness."
With this research in mind, one might assume that residents of the Emirates are already set. After all, the UAE ranks fourth in the world when it comes to countries with the most luxurious lifestyle for expats, according to the latest Expat Explorer Survey, commissioned by HSBC Bank International. Common perks such as having more cars and exotic holidays, plus nicer and larger properties, were all more prevalent among expats in the UAE than residents of other countries surveyed.
Yet for Nazni McNaught, of Abu Dhabi, there's a simpler pursuit that brings her joy: dance. That's what makes her career in information technology that much more important.
"The extensive training required for competency in dancing needs substantial financial resources, which would be difficult without a steady income stream," says Ms McNaught, who practises everything from the foxtrot and waltz to the tango and salsa.
"My career brought in the money for a comfortable lifestyle, which in itself led to peace of mind and happiness. It also provided the funds to put towards dance training, especially at the level of competitive dancing, which can cost heaps in training, travel and related costs."
Still, she says, it's a "passion" that she'll gladly keep paying for.
"The sensation of moving to [a] beat, to lovely music takes me always to the heights of ecstasy. And there is the ambience of the dance society - the sense of belonging to a particular class of people who, so to speak, interact in the same language: the language of dancing."
The rush of feel-good endorphins that quite literally sweep Ms McNaught off her feet is also what keeps many of us paying to enjoy our favourite activities.
For some consumers, though, the pattern can become an addiction when they take to the malls and, say, swipe their cards month after month until they've transformed into bonafide shopaholics. Studies, however, have found that more people say they're happier when they make an experiential purchase rather than when they buy more things - even if those things do less damage to their bank account.
But why are experiences more satisfying?
That's the question a pair of researchers from Cornell University in New York state tried to answer in a paper they published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
They conducted no fewer than eight studies on the topic and discovered that people were less satisfied with physical things because they were more likely to ruminate about what they didn't have. Consumers also had a bad habit of comparing whatever they bought with what other people chose. In other words, that new spring skirt looks smart until it's in a room full of much trendier dresses.
In the end, the researchers concluded, shelling out money on an experience rather than more stuff was "more conducive to well-being".
Nafisa Taha seems to spend plenty on experiences. But rarely are they for herself. As chairperson of the Abu Dhabi Terry Fox Run, an annual event that raises awareness and funding for cancer research, she helps gather donations plus puts in plenty of her own. Over the years, she's given to various causes, whether while working at Unicef's greeting-card operations or walking along the Great Wall of China to benefit programmes under Gulf for Good, a Dubai-based charity.
How much she's given, though, is irrelevant. "I won't give you a figure," says Ms Taha. "I don't like to talk about money because in our religion we're not supposed to advertise how much we give. It's not a competition."
But not everyone in the UAE seems to give to get - happiness, that is.
Forty per cent of residents from the Emirates say they have given money to charity compared with 41 per cent in Kuwait, 43 per cent in Bahrain and 64 per cent in Qatar, according to the 2010 World Giving Index, a global ranking that relies on Gallup poll data. Obviously, residents here can get in on some feel-good philanthropy without breaking the bank. Yet few likely know how little is actually needed to lift happiness.
In one test, researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada and the Harvard Business School in the US asked people to rate how happy they felt. They then gave each person either C$5 (Dh18.60) or C$20 and put them into one of two groups. The first was instructed to spend the money on themselves by paying for a bill, expense or gift, while the second was told to buy a gift for someone else or donate the amount to charity. The findings?
"Spending as little as $5 on somebody else produces a significant benefit of happiness," says Elizabeth Dunn, an assistant professor of psychology at UBC who worked on the study. "The amount of money we gave them [participants] didn't really matter. What really mattered was who they spent it on; in particular, spending it on someone else."
But how do these kinds of results affect consumers, including those studying these phenomena in their ivory towers?
"I definitely do take my own research to heart in my spending decisions," says Ms Dunn. "After we finished the paper, for Christmas, I decided to get all of my relatives presents in the form of gift certificates for Donors Choose," where loved ones can pick a particular cause that connects with them and reimburse their certificate.
"I wouldn't say charitable giving always produces happiness; it can when you feel a kind of social connection to the recipient," adds Ms Dunn. "That tends to be good for happiness."