Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Does Wealth Make Us Happier?

In my micro class, the last chapter we covered dealt with incomes and wealth. The question "does money buy happiness?" is perennial. Matt Ridley wrote a column about some new happiness research recently in The Wall Street Journal. See Wealth Makes Us Happier, But Why? Here is an exerpt:

"As Buddhists have long recognized, attaining our desires doesn't seem to bring satisfaction, just further restlessness. This is no surprise to evolutionary psychologists. Natural selection shaped human nature to be ambitious, not to settle for contentment. The person who kept striving to be successful left more offspring behind than the Epicurean hedonist.

So the pursuit of happiness turns out to be as frustrating as hunting the holy grail. Forcing people to be jolly seems to be counterproductive. Having children, which we do to make ourselves happy, generally makes us a bit unhappier in practice.

If you ask people whether suffering a disabling accident would make them unhappy a year after the event, they say "of course." But if you ask people who were disabled in an accident a year before if they are unhappy now, they say "no." For some people at least, happiness almost seems to have a thermostat: After good or bad things happen, we return to our own personal levels of contentedness.

Nonetheless, people say they've been getting slowly happier. In 45 of 52 countries, happiness has risen during the past 30 years. This coincides with people getting richer. Contrary to myth, rich countries have slightly happier citizens than poor countries. Of course, it's possible to be rich and unhappy, as many a celebrity deliciously reminds us. A study done in the 1970s bolstered the cheering (for the rest of us) notion that rich people are not necessarily happier, but it has since been challenged by larger statistical samples, especially in the work of Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers at the University of Pennsylvania.

What is it about prosperity that brings happiness? Rather than having more "stuff," it is probably the freedom that wealth buys, letting us make choices about our lifestyle—where to live, who to marry, what to wear. The political scientist Ronald Inglehart argues that the big gains in happiness come from living in a society that frees you to be yourself—"

Another interesting article is The pursuit of happiness: Author seeks to take its measure and find where people are most content. It quotes former University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He said "Without dreams, without risks, only a trivial semblance of living can be achieved."

Some earlier posts on happiness:

Does Or Can Money Buy Happiness?

Interesting Book: Stumbling on Happiness

Does Money Make You Mean?

I wonder if you can be mean and happy at the same time.

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