By Amy Alkon
Q: My girlfriend and I are both struggling artists in our early 20s. We have a lot of fun, and being poor together seems oddly bonding. But I read an article about a study that said that couples with lower credit scores and less money are less likely to stay together than those with money and good credit. Should we be worried?—Underfunded
A: Lack of money is the root of many arguments. So, sure, the same couple is likely to be happier if the island they can afford to “winter” on is one in the middle of the South Pacific, as opposed to one in the middle of a four-lane highway.
Still, it’s a little premature to gear up for a bitter battle to divide the Top Ramen and takeout “silverware” packets. Before I explain why, in case any readers pay bills out of a coffee can buried in the backyard, your credit score is a numerical ranking (up to 800) that uses your credit repayment history to predict your credit repayment future (like whether you’re more likely to pay what you owe or, say, fake your own death).
In the study you’re referring to, economist Jane Dokko and her colleagues looked at nearly 16 years’ worth of credit scores of 12 million randomly selected U.S. consumers. They found that two people who come into a relationship with high credit scores—and scores that are relatively similar—are more likely to stay together.
People who have high credit scores tend to be conscientious sorts with a habit of meeting their obligations. But there are also sociopaths with high credit scores—perhaps because they have lucrative jobs and plenty of dough to pay the electric bill (and recognize that it’s easier to scam people if they don’t have to do their plotting by candlelight). Conversely, somebody with a lower score may have been through something catastrophic (a medical bankruptcy as opposed to a moral one).
You might also keep in mind that a study isn’t a crystal ball airing the TV show of your future; it’s merely a guess of what could happen to you based on how things went for a lot of people. Also, the key thing to note about this particular study is that credit scores are being used as a measure of trustworthiness. And, not surprisingly, a mismatch in a couple’s ethical makeup—specifically, in how trustworthy each partner is—can prove problematic for the happily-ever-after-ness of their relationship.
However, even if your most recent rejection letter from a credit card company starts, “Nice try, butthead” (a refreshing change from their usual, “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding”), all is not bleak. Though research finds that money actually can “buy happiness,” social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn explains in a 2011 paper that “it buys less than most people think.” In fact, she deems “the correlation between income and happiness” “modest” and “surprisingly weak.”
Dunn notes that where we go wrong is in what we think will make us happy—versus what actually does. One thing we don’t anticipate is “adaptation”—how we quickly get acclimated to things we buy or are given, which means they soon stop giving us the buzz they did at first. And because our big happiness burst is right when we get something (or take the first sip or bite), Dunn writes that “frequent, small pleasures—double lattes … and high thread-count socks”—make us happier than occasional big ones (like new floors, a new car, or a new chin).
And in even better news for you two, Dunn explains that experiences seem to make us happier than things. Because experiences live on in our heads as stories, they don’t succumb to adaptation the way objects do. We get renewed enjoyment remembering and talking about them—in a way we don’t by verbally bludgeoning people with the fabulousness of our $5,000 espresso machine-slash-massage chair.
And—fascinatingly—bad experiences may lead to more long-term happiness than good ones. By bad experiences, Dunn doesn’t mean screaming matches in the middle of the framing store. She’s talking about the kind you look back on and laugh about, like breaking down in some terrifying part of town, thanks to how your car is held together by duct tape, tree sap and hope.
This brings us to what Dunn reports is “our greatest source of happiness”—other people. And it’s here that you’ve got something over the more moneyed couples. They rarely experience the cooperative creativity and loving dedication that go into even the most mundane activities when you’re poor—like holding the antenna of your Salvation Army TV at a 47.8-degree angle for your boo: “OK, honey—there! Don’t move! Only 18 more minutes till this episode is over!”