Can money buy happiness?

UnknownMoney does buy a lot of things that enhance well-being; and many of life’s problems can be solved if you have enough money. But past that point, scientific evidence suggests, more money may not make you happier. (Though still the quality of life is better, and I’d rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable.)

Some profess bafflement why people who have enough still want more. As if that were not fundamental to human nature. Yet wanting more is labeled “greed;” and wanting more, globally, in the form of economic growth, likewise gets tarred as a kind of greed. There are even those (like climate activist Bill McKibben) who deem economic growth a bad thing. But that’s supercilious in a world still far from the point where everyone has enough to live decently.* (And, no, redistributing all the wealth of the rich wouldn’t do it.)

It’s also argued that wealth inequality actually reduces everyone’s well-being. At least some wish that were so, to bolster their anti-wealth political agenda. But I doubt the rich are much perturbed by inequality. Indeed, there’s evidence that on average they’re stingier, less charitable, and just less nice. It’s not clear whether wealth makes one mean, or being mean helps make one richer. But either way, many (though not all) rich people feel superior and disdainful.

UnknownHowever, if lefties then arguably have a point that wealth tends to go to the “wrong” people, that seems to be a basic fact of human society that cannot be undone without destroying the sources of economic growth and progress – that is, people striving to better their personal situations – that have meantime made the world as a whole so much richer, especially in the last century, eliminating so much squalor and misery.

Getting back to happiness, what the word actually means is a big and difficult question. But people generally seem born with (or to develop) a set-point along the happiness/unhappiness spectrum, to which they tend to revert eventually after the impact of any vicissitude. One element of a happier personality is a sense of gratitude – not taking one’s blessings for granted.

images-1A related key reason why, beyond a certain point, added wealth doesn’t increase happiness is what social scientists call the “adaptation effect.” One adapts psychologically to a new higher living standard; the surprise wears off and the “new normal” becomes what you now expect and take for granted.

Also relevant here is a set of Kenyan socioeconomic experiments reported by The Economist. In small villages, sizable cash grants were given at random (echoing the typically unequal distribution of economic growth). Recipients’ feelings of well-being measurably rose. But for neighbors, they fell, by even more. (Though all these deviations wore off after a while; the adaptation effect.)

But notably, as The Economist explained, “it was not inequality in general that bothered the unlucky, so much as a decline in their own wealth relative to the mean.” That is, their sense of well-being was governed not by their absolute wealth levels but, rather, by the comparison against their peers. The cash grants raised a village’s average wealth, making the non-recipients poorer compared not just to the recipients but to the average.

images-2“Keeping up with the Joneses” is a very real psycho-social force. As The Economist further says, in evaluating one’s relative position one tends to look at those above rather than below; so, “when our own lot improves, we shift our reference group to those who are still better off. In other words, we are never satisfied, since we quickly become accustomed to our own achievements.” The adaptation effect again. “Perhaps that is what spurs people to earn more, and economies to grow.” (My emphasis.)

imagesConclusion: to keep people from getting rich would not be good for the poor, but bad.

 

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4 Responses to “Can money buy happiness?”

  1. Shrey Srivastava Says:

    Thanks for this blog post regarding money’s relationship with happiness; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on finance and economics at shreysfinanceblog.com, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks, Shrey. I looked at your interesting blog and commented on one post. It seems you have a bigger audience than I do!!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I’m for small is beautiful and simple is good. Happiness comes from many things and NOT $$$. If the GWP were divided equally I think we’d each have about $10,000/year. And that seems plenty to me.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    If all world wealth were divided equally, nobody would bother to exert themselves to produce anything, so we would not have $10,000 each, we would have nothing.

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