Money as Medicine

There are actually people who think that money might not be the ultimate source of human happiness. These fringe thinkers argue that what makes us New $100 happy are the mundane trivialities of days at the beach, good food, sex, and so on.

Of course, the counter-argument is that all those things can be purchased with money. Moreover, the more money spent on them, the more people tend to enjoy them. That could be because the nice stuff is more desirable so its price gets bid up. Or maybe the fact that more of that magical money stuff is involved means that it makes us more happy.

Recent scientific evidence supports the theory that it is money itself that brings happiness. Researchers at the University of Minnesota had college students count either $100 bills or slips of paper before dipping their hands in 122 degree water. The money counters felt less pain.

What is really striking about this result is that the students did not get to keep the money, they just got to handle it. Merely rubbing their fingers across the cool familiar surface of that very special form of paper, seeing the reassuring and all-knowing visage of Franklin, and breathing in that wondrous and unique musty aroma of our great American currency was enough to ward off discomfort.

This is an exciting development in the field of pain management. It raises the possibility that instead of wasting precious money on such things as morphine, hospitals could simply provide patients with a bundle of Benjamins to caress. Instead of wasting money installing Jacuzzis in their homes, back pain sufferers could just fill an ordinary tub with coins.

Of course, our understanding of the healing effects of money are still rudimentary. Further experimentation will be needed. For example, we do not yet know if allowing the students to fondle, for example, credit cards, gold bullion, or Treasury Bonds would have had similar or indeed better results. We also do not yet know the importance of denomination. Would $10 bills have worked just as well? Or perhaps there is something special about the hundred.

The significant possibility that $100 bills contain important medicinal properties has led me to question the government’s recent announcement of further design changes to the bill. I think that until we better understand the science, and can isolate the active ingredient, we ought to leave the current formulation alone.

Apparently, the plan is to make the $100 design so overloaded with multicolored and discordant features and symbols that no self-respecting counterfeiter would be willing to make one. (Dramatic video of new design here. You will want to turn off your sound first.)

Clearly, the emergence of paper money as medicine only increases the concern over counterfeiting. A fake $100 is not merely lost revenue to the government, it is a health issue. But, again, more research is needed. There is the possibility of a strong placebo effect.

It is just possible, and I am only speculating here, that the beneficial effects of touching a fake $100 are nearly the same as touching a real one, provided that the patient thinks it is authentic. By all accounts, the Madoff victims were as happy as actual rich people until the moment they found out that they were not actually rich.

And a placebo effect would raise an ethical issue. Is it right for our government to prevent those in developing nations, who cannot afford the authorized version, to make their own $100 bills?


  • By Monevator, April 23, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    The use of money as a self-medicating placebo is really interesting. I’ve noticed when I’m down I shop, like most of the rest of the Western World.

    Happily though, I seem to get a thrill out of simply buying some decent fish and vegetables, or maybe a fancy new spice, from the more glamorous end of the grocery store market.

    Maybe if I saw more big notes I could skip the middleman, but generally I use either plastic or manky loose change, that never made anybody over 7-years old feel better for handling it… ;)

  • By jim, April 23, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    I’ve heard a few times that credit cards physically forces you to spend X% more money than cash does. I wonder if the power of credit cards might also translate to X% more magical healing power than plain old paper money?

    On the other hand I wonder if its just the comforting visage of old Ben Franklin that the real source of healing powers? I wonder if the employees of Franklin Templeton are super healthy or something..

  • By Dasha, April 23, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    There is also the possibility that the government is infusing the bills with super-secret pheromones.

  • By Lance, April 23, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    This also suggests a moral imperative to fight inflation. If the USD loses 10% of its value, will touching the $100 bill only be as 90% as effective? It could be even worse, if the effects scale in unpredictable ways. Indeed, I think the only thing to do is to spark a spiral of deflation.

  • By Hibryd, April 23, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    Well, I’m off to patent Scrooge McDuck Money Bin Swim Therapy(TM).

    On a serious note, the new bills look ridiculous, but I understand the need. I used to work in the cash control department of a theme park, and we got some GOOD counterfeit $100 bills in, only a few months after they debuted. These fakes passed the pen tests, had convincing microprinting, and even had a damn watermark. To this day if I ever get $100s at a bank, I tilt them to check the color change ink and/or hold them up to the light before I walk away.

    On another serious note, handling money all day didn’t make us happier, I think. After a while you stop thinking of it as money and start thinking about it as numbers to be counted and balanced. Maybe once a week I’d stop, look at the cash in front of me, and think “Huh, I could buy a house with this”, but for the most part we might as well have been counting Monopoly money.

  • By Neil, April 23, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    There is something pleasant about handling large sums of money, even when it’s not yours. I imagine if this was a daily activity, it would get boring. When it’s your own, though, there’s still a good feeling…I’m an accountant, so I pretty much count money all day, but it’s still pleasant to go home and count my own.

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, April 23, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

    Of course, using normal paper as the “control” in the experiment isn’t very scientific, since the composition is different. It’s possible that the physical makeup of the bill is creating the effect.

    Or not.

  • By Holly, April 24, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    Perhaps the students thought that they might get one of the bills as a reward for participating.

  • By DanT, April 26, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    I’ve heard that every $100 bill in circulation has cocaine on it. (I don’t believe that, of course, but it’s been claimed.) If so, perhaps it was the numbing effects of touching the cocaine residue that led to those participants actually feeling less pain.

    Or more likely, they just had an endorphin release from simply handling so much money.

  • By Nick, April 26, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    One should always be careful when using assets as medicine. Some asset formulations have been recently noted for their high levels of toxicity.

  • By Boston Steve, April 26, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    It’s the fact that it was college students doing the counting, they were thinking of all the beer and pizza they could buy with the money. Happy thoughts.

    If us old married folks count money we think of paying our tax bills and stuff like that…not very happy thoughts….

    Dan T. That was my first thought as well…supposedly something like 80 % of U.S. paper currency has coke on it….

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