You can be too patient

When it comes to my financial preferences, I am stereotypical German. If it was up to me, I would have an incredibly high savings rate, consume little, have no debt, and invest whatever I save for a rainy day and a comfy retirement.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of marrying an American. And when it comes to her financial preferences, my wife is stereotypical American. The expression “foregone consumption” does not exist in her dictionary and debt is something to be embraced in large quantities. I like to joke that when I met here I learned a completely new definition of the word “shopping”.

I have written in the past about research that shows that on a country level, peoples who are more patient tend to be wealthier and happier. And on an individual level, people who are more patient and able to wait for delayed gratification have higher retirement savings and a better life in general.

It is true that there are differences between people that determine how patient a person is. Women on average are slightly less patient than men, people who are worse at maths tend to be less patient and older people tend to be more patient. And since my wife is a woman and worse at maths than I am, I think it is no surprise that she is a less patient person than I am.

But it seems that people can be too patient. Incredible as it may sound, if you check the link between patience and self-reported happiness the most common measure used in happiness research), more patient people tend to be happier, but only to a point. Once you enter the top 6% to 8% of most patient people in the world, your life satisfaction peaks and then starts to decline. Shifting to the top 1% of most patient people in the world reduces happiness by about a quarter of the difference in happiness between people with a college degree and a high school diploma. In other words, misers are less satisfied with their lives.

And this also explains why my wife makes me a happier person. Without her, I would probably be in the top 1% or so of people who delay gratification. But thanks to her, I save less and enjoy life more. And that pulls me back towards the top 10% or so and clearly makes me happier. And now, I even have statistical proof for that.

Patience around the world

Source: Falk et al. (2018). Note: Blue colours indicate higher levels of patience, red colours indicate lower levels of patience.