Happiness, equity theory, and why we tend to think that we should get what we deserve — and deserve what we get.

One of the most interesting and complicated issues within the study of happiness is the relationship between money and happiness. Although some folks seem content to say, “Money can’t buy happiness,” I think that relationship is a bit more complicated.

Because of my interest in this topic, I read Shira Boss’s fascinating book, Green With Envy. It was interesting in many ways – for example, she seeks to explode the taboo against talking about money, and provides several detailed accouts of people’s money problems, including her own. If you like the blog My Open Wallet, you’ll like this book.

I was most intrigued, however, by Boss’s brief discussion of equity theory – a phenomenon I’d observed in the world, without knowing the name for it.

Equity theory, according to Boss, is the psychological term for our tendency to feel uneasy when we have much more or much less than someone else, without knowing why. People generally have a belief that we get what we deserve – and deserve what we get.

Now, this is obvious when something bad and undeserved happens. People ask “Why me?” when cancer strikes or a hurricane hits.

But people also feel discomfort when something good and undeserved happens. People who inherit a lot of money (as opposed to people who earn a lot of money), for example, or people who are strikingly attractive, see that without any effort on their parts, they’re very fortunate, and that can cause discomfort. (I know, you’re thinking, throw some of that discomfort my way! But while “it’s a good problem to have,” as they say, it does mess with people’s heads.)

The more I think about it, the more interesting equity theory becomes.

It explains, for example, the attraction of the idea of karma, even to people who don’t hold karma as a religious belief. There’s a sense that karma is a force in the world – not just that if you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice to you, etc., but that there’s some force in the universe, like gravity, that operates to bring about just desserts.

It explains the fact that certain professions breed arrogance. If you earn a wildly huge amount of money – say, with a hedge fund – equity theory would mean that you’d want to believe that if you’ve made that much money, you must deserve that much money. You wouldn’t say to yourself, “Right place, right time,” or feel lucky. You’d feel brilliant.

It explains people’s strange reactions to lottery winnings. Think of Hurley on Lost — his lottery winnings made him happy, then made things very strange for him (well, I suppose in his case, it was a bit more than the lottery at work!). But lottery weirdness happens in real life. Consider one woman who, after she won $2.8 million, was sued by her son’s teenage friend, whom she’d asked to pray for her. Equity theory helps explains the lawsuit. It didn’t seem possible that this woman could just win for no reason; she must have earned it in some way – according to the lawsuit, by virtue of the teenager’s prayers.

Have you seen any examples of equity theory at work in the world?

Chris at The Art of Non-Conformity blog did an interesting set of interviews on the question of the financial payoff to following your passion. He was nice enough to include me in the discussion.

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  • This reminds me of a quote (I apologize for not being able for the source) that goes something like:
    Wouldn’t it be awful if the universe always gave us exactly what we deserved?
    I definitely prefer for the universe to remain random and impersonal. I’d just as soon be able screw up now and then without commensurate misery raining down on my head, even if it means that some of my good deeds go unrewarded.
    Not to mention that if something bad happens, I don’t have the added burden of realizing that I brought it down on my own head.

  • Michele

    Your post really hit home for me. I’m currently financially comfortable in a way that often makes me feel *uncomfortable*.
    I didn’t win the lottery, in fact spent several years working very very hard for this success. But I often find myself feeling like there’s been some sort of mistake or that something pretty bad is going to have to happen to ‘even the score’. I know I worked hard, but so do a lot of people.
    Maybe I need to work harder at the “Fundamental Attribution Error” or in believing in karma!
    Anyway, interesting topic!

  • Justin

    generally a good post.
    however, your using Hurley on Lost as an example seems a bit silly to me