Once upon a time, really rich people didn’t work much at all: they had serfs, slaves, or other lower classes to do that for them. Everyone else, on the other hand, had to work all the time, because survival would be otherwise impossible. We’ve flipped that notion on its head these days, though. The billionaire’s list is full of people who could stop tomorrow and never worry about another thing in their lives, but don’t. And let’s be honest: you don’t need to be a billionaire to hit that level. Chances are, there are a few bankers, doctors, lawyers, or other hard workers in your life who could, realistically, stop, enjoy life, and never work again. But here’s the thing: most of us don’t do that.
So why do we work so hard to earn more money than we can realistically spend? A study published in Psychological Science sought to clarify the phenomena with a pretty simple set of experiments. In the first, they had participants simulate simple work/life balance by listening to music and earning chocolate. How’s that work? Well, they were given a choice between listening to an obnoxious noise and earning chocolate (simulating work), or listening to pleasant music and getting no chocolate (simulating life). They were also divided into two groups: high-earners and low-earners. High earners had to listen to the obnoxious noise twenty times in order to earn their chocolate. By contrast, low-earners had to listen to it 120 times for the same reward. Participants were also told that they had to eat their chocolate at the lab; they couldn’t take it with them when they were done.
You’d expect that participants would earn as much chocolate as they think they could eat and then call it a day and listen to pleasant music for the remainder of the experiment. However, people aren’t especially rational. Participants ended up earning far more chocolate than they’d ever hope to eat, with high earners earning an average of 10.74 chocolates and eating only 4.26, meaning that they’d subjected themselves to unpleasantness for no concrete reward. Low-earners actually listened to roughly the same amount of obnoxious sound as their high-earning counterparts, but of course earned less. This suggests that both groups were just working as much as they thought they could, irrespective of the rewards. The researchers dubbed this “mindless accumulation”.
In a second experiment, researchers introduced a cap on earnings. This time, two groups earned at the same rate, but one was given a message when they hit their earnings cap, and they other group had no such cap. Both were free to continue listening to the obnoxious noise, but of course, the first group stopped once they hit their cap. Afterward, the first group reported higher levels of happiness than the second group, who presumably still left chocolate on the table.