From the abstract of "Overearning":
High productivity and high earning rates brought about by modern technologies make it possible for people to work less and enjoy more, yet many continue to work assiduously to earn more. Do people —forgo leisure to work and earn beyond their needs? This question is understudied, partly because in real life, determining the right amount of earning and defining overearning are difficult. In this research, we introduced a minimalistic paradigm that allows researchers to study overearning in a controlled laboratory setting. Using this paradigm, we found that individuals do overearn, even at the cost of happiness, and that overearning is a result of mindless accumulation—a tendency to work and earn until feeling tired rather than until having enough. Supporting the mindless-accumulation notion, our results show, first, that individuals work about the same amount regardless of earning rates and hence are more likely to overearn when earning rates are high than when they are low, and second, that prompting individuals to consider the consequences of their earnings or denying them excessive earnings can disrupt mindless accumulation and enhance happiness.The researchers used a particularly cool experiment, in which subjects were given a piece of chocolate for listening to a piercing noise a certain number of times. They could continue to listen to the noise and acquire chocolate as often as they liked within five minutes, with the catch being that they could not take home any of the candy. They could eat as much as they liked within the next five minutes, but any chocolate left over at that point had to be given back.
The experiment had two groups: high earners and low earners. High earners earned chocolate for listening for fewer times; low earners had to listen to the noise more often to earn a piece of candy. The results? The high earners, on average, earned nearly three times more chocolate than they could actually eat within five minutes. Additionally, individual high earners also chose to earn more chocolates than they, themselves, estimated they would be able to eat within five minutes. They voluntarily subjected themselves to pain, just to earn more candy than they believed they possibly could eat or would want to eat, and that they would have to give back.
Oddly, both high earners and low earners seemed to listen to the piercing noise the same number of times, leading to only the high earners overearning. Low earners did not seem to overearn at the same rate, or at all. Low earners acquired less chocolate than they estimated they could consume. But as both groups listened to the noise the same number of times, regardless of how much chocolate they earned, the authors' conclusion is that people will earn as much as they can, regardless of their pay rate. Their desire to earn is not based on how much someone wants or needs, but on how much work someone can perform...or withstand.
The concept of humans working more than is necessary, and acquiring past the point that would increase their happiness, is at the root of early retirement and financial independence. Because modern technology allows us to be more productive than previous generations, we are presented with a choice. We can either be more productive and (hopefully) continue to earn more, or we can work less and enjoy some "lesser" standard of living that always was, and still is, just fine. The latter choice might be working fewer hours right now, or ending one's working career early. The prior choice is just continuing to work hard for a typical career length, regardless of whether the total amount earned well surpasses the amount you'd need to live and be happy with.
But there's a rub here, too. For the thousands (or millions?) of people working towards financial independence or early retirement, and us hundreds and thousands of personal finance bloggers doing the same, what assurances do we have that we won't also succumb to mindless accumulation? (In our case, the accumulation is, I suppose, of money.) What will keep us from continuing to work when we reach the point that we have more than enough? The temptation, for me, is to look at this research and think, "I'm smarter than those people in the experiment. I'll know when to stop working and earning. And when I reach that point, I actually will stop." But when the time comes, and the spreadsheets and calculations state that my wife and I have enough to stop working, will I? Or will I go out and find research that says it's better to be cautious, and find justification to work another year...or five? You know, just to be safe.
*Photo is from BuzzFarmers at Flickr Creative Commons.