Author Interview: Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Authors of HAPPY MONEY: THE SCIENCE OF SMARTER SPENDING

It’s with great pleasure that I share this most recent author interview on the GLA Blog. That’s because I happen to be reading their book right now! It’s a nonfiction guide called HAPPY MONEY: THE SCIENCE OF SMARTER SPENDING (S&S, May 2013), a resource on what purchases give people the most satisfaction. Publishers Weekly said, “Readers cannot help but be charmed by this funny, warm guide to creating the good life from scratch.” Read on to meet authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton.

[Editor’s note: I read this book and it is excellent. You should buy it.]



elizabeth-dunn-author      happy-money-book-cover      michael-norton-author



What is the book’s genre/category?


Please describe what the story/book is about.

In HAPPY MONEY, we offer five specific but flexible guidelines designed to help readers make money a source of greater happiness for them, and help companies harness these ideas in order to create happier employees and provide “happier products.”

Where do you write from?

I’m [Liz] based in Vancouver, and Mike’s in Boston. Liz writes from exotic locations; Mike mainly writes in transit – on planes and trains.

(Book Payments and Royalties — Your Questions Answered.)

Briefly, what led up to this book?

Seven years ago, Liz experienced a major life change that provided the impetus for this book. After a penniless decade of adult life spent earning educational degrees, she started earning money. As a new faculty member with a real grown-up salary, she skyrocketed above the poverty line for the first time. Wondering what to do with this newfound wealth – and having just completed her Ph.D. in social psychology – Liz turned to the burgeoning scientific literature on happiness. There, she found roughly 17,000 papers on the relationship between money and happiness, most of which seemed to suggest that more income often fails to bring more happiness. But, she wondered, if money often fails to buy happiness, does that mean that it can’t? What if people spent their money differently – and better? Liz called up her friend Mike Norton. As graduate students, Liz and Mike had met at an academic summer camp (think band camp, but even nerdier). There, they discovered a mutual willingness to tackle wacky questions – like “who makes us happier, our significant others or strangers?” and “does thinking about Superman make people more or less helpful?” In his post-camp years, Mike had become a faculty member at the Harvard Business School. Liz convinced Mike to help her figure out whether people could spend their money in happier ways.

What was the time frame for writing this book?

We wrote the book in under a year. Liz was on sabbatical and traveled to a different place to write each of her chapters–for example, Chapter 1 was written from a beautiful apartment in the heart of Barcelona, and Chapter 2 from a bungalow overlooking a surf break in Bali. Being away from the distractions of home made it much easier to get it done fast. In Bali, Liz would get up at sunrise, go surfing, and then come in and write for most of the day once the surf break got crowded. Mike wrote the first draft of chapter 5 on a long plane ride from Sydney to Boston, and the epilogue when he visited Santa Fe and forced his hosts to strand him at a coffee shop for two straight days.

How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?

We were contacted by a number of agents and publishers after a story appeared in the NYT featuring our work. In the end, we chose to work with Katinka Matson at the Brockman Agency because of her incredible track record helping bring academic ideas to a mainstream audience.



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What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

It’s surprising how slowly the whole process unfolds. We thought academic publishing was slow, but our academic articles come out very quickly in comparison to the book. We also found out what a different enterprise it is to write for a general audience as opposed to our academic colleagues. Mike had to learn to disabuse himself of his tendency – of which he was unaware – to overuse dashes.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

We took the time to talk to journalists and laypeople about our research, which had an enormous impact in shaping our research towards topics that are scientifically novel but also applicable to people’s everyday lives.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

Liz probably would have picked a co-author who isn’t such a procrastinator; Mike would have chosen to work with not just one but two Liz’s.

(Do you need different agents if you write multiple genres?)

Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership?

We are fortunate to have connections to a lot of journalists and editors, and we’ve started writing opinion pieces for major newspapers, including the NYT. Our latest piece appeared in the Times Sunday Review.

Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?

Wait until there’s something you really want to say.

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

Before becoming an academic, Mike pursued an extremely ill-fated career in music. While an academic, Liz pursued an extremely ill-fated surfing habit: she was attacked by a 10-foot shark.


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