“What will make me happy?” Since everyone wants happiness, it would make sense to give this question some serious attention. But my impression is that most people don’t really think about it much, probably because most of us assume that we already know the answer. Most people seem to take it for granted that getting whatever we happen to want is what will make us happy: in other words, that happiness means fulfilling our desires.
But it’s easy to see why this can’t be correct. The drug addict, for example, wants his fix, but getting it won’t make him happy. To the contrary, his only hope for happiness lies in learning how to live without fulfilling that desire. (In philosophy, conflating happiness with the pleasure of gratifying our desires is known as the hedonistic fallacy).The example of the addict highlights the fact that some of our desires lead to happiness and some to suffering. The ability to discern the difference combined with the commitment to discipline oneself to pursue only the positive desires are essential skills to master if we want to be happy. Happiness is neither easy nor accidental; achieving it requires discriminative wisdom.
And that brings me to the widespread belief that having more money will make us happier. We are (even in the midst of the current recession) the wealthiest civilization that has ever existed. Yet almost all of us believe that we don’t have enough money, and assume that we’d be happier if we had more. Fantasies of winning the lottery are probably are probably almost as popular as sexual fantasies for conjuring up pleasant pictures of our future happiness. We may say that money can’t buy happiness, but that’s the kind of pious platitude that hardly anybody takes seriously and almost no one really believes.
There’s actually been a mountain of research on the subject of happiness, involving more than a million subjects on five continents, and in recent years psychologists have reviewed and summarized the findings. What does the science actually demonstrate about the relationship between money and happiness? First of all, and not surprisingly, it confirms that destitution – meaning lack of the basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, and medical care – is misery. But it also reveals that, once we have these necessities, further increases in affluence have little effect on how happy we feel.
Since World War II the gross domestic product per capita has tripled in the United States. Today we travel more, have bigger homes, more appliances, gadgets, and stuff of all kinds than any previous generation of Americans. But our subjective sense of well-being, as measured by surveys asking some variation of “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” has hardly changed at all. The same is true in other countries. Japan has had a huge rise in GDP per capita since World War II, but measures of national happiness have stayed flat. The same thing has been true in Western Europe during its long postwar boom. After surveying the research on money and happiness, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Martin E. P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania concluded “Although economic output has risen steeply over the past decades, there has been no rise in life satisfaction … and there has been a substantial increase in depression and distrust.”
One reason for this outcome may be that more money increases material aspirations – the sense that there are so many more cool things you just gotta have. For many of us, when our affluence increases the result is that, like hamsters, we just run faster and faster on the materialistic treadmill.
Do people become happier when they win the lottery? Surveys of winners confirm that they do experience initial elation after winning, but very soon the general sense of being alive returns to about what it was before they won. Frequently the winners even became unhappier when they quit their jobs and experience lost relationships and lost sense of meaning and accomplishment; or when they are harassed by friends and relatives who expect financial assistance.
Our delusions about money are surely no accident: there’s a huge corporate investment, in the form of the advertising industry, in deceiving us about the relationship between consumption and happiness. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote in his best-selling Stumbling on Happiness “Economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy … Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will strive only for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.”
Now for the punch line: research does show that there is one way in which money can reliably increase happiness. Several published studies showed that money contributed to people’s subjective sense of well-being when they gave some of it away. When they donated to charities or gave some of their wealth as gifts to loved ones, there was a measurably positive influence on their level of happiness. So the conclusion seems to be that the materialistic treadmill of greed, acquisitiveness and hoarding can’t increase your happiness — but generosity can.