Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

The pain of uncertainty: Why people experience more physical pain during economical uncertainty

By Janina Steinmetz


Virtually all of us face economic insecurity at some point in out lives. In pursuing our purpose and finding meaning, we must go through times of change and instability. Whether people are in college, are starting a family, buying a home, or are retiring from paid labor, many are especially worried about their finances. We all know the psychological toll that economic uncertainty can take: loosing sleep, ruminating about money and jobs, feeling anxious and depressed. But what about our bodies? Can they literally suffer from living in economic uncertainty?

Image ©:  Sodanie Chea 2012

A recent paper by Eileen Chou from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia, and her colleagues explores the relationship between feeling economically uncertain and experiencing physical pain. First of all, the authors looked at household’s consumption of over-the-counter pain medication. If one or more members of the household were unemployed, people in that household consumed significantly more pain medication, compared to household without unemployed members. Although this finding is fascinating, it does not yet answer the question whether the economic uncertainty of being unemployed causes the higher consumption of pain killers. It could well be that being in pain a lot (for instance, due to an injury) correlates with unemployment. To test whether economic uncertainty actually correlates with more pain, and is not just related to the more frequent experience of pain, the authors conducted an experiment. First, they asked half of the participants (who were all college students) to think about the economically stable aspects of their lives, for instance, about the fact that college graduates are rarely unemployed. These participants presumably felt more economic security afterwards. However, the other half of participants was asked to think about the economically unstable aspects of their lives, for instance, about many college graduates working minimum wage, making these participants feel more economic insecurity. Then, all participants put their hands in ice-water for as long as they could. This procedure is very painful and the longer one can endure it, the higher is typically one’s tolerance for pain. The results show a fascinating pattern: Those participants who thought about economic insecurity had a lower tolerance for pain and could not keep their hand in the ice-water as long as those participants who thought about economic security.

It seems that economic insecurity drains the same physical energy that the body needs to deal with pain. Because people feel like they are losing control over their lives when their economic situation becomes unstable, they have a lower capacity to handle pain. This research resonates well with New Paths to Purpose Member Liz Dunn’s work that shows that people who have more financial resources experience less sadness in their daily life (but not more happiness). It seems that financial stability helps us to feel secure and in control, and allows us to focus on our purposeful pursuit. Nevertheless, when we do feel financial uncertainty, we should appraise the stress this can create and be mindful of ourselves. Dealing with economic uncertainty can be hard for the body and the mind, so we need to take good care of both.


Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

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