Thursday, November 1, 2018

Happiness and Materialism

Anyone who truly believes that money cannot buy happiness has led a charmed life, or is conveniently forgetting a time in which they suffered for the lack of something that money could easily obtain.   

Most people can recall a time when they went hungry for a few days for lack of money to buy food, or nights when they worried about being evicted or having the utilities shut off for their inability to pay.  Many can recall a time when money would have made a significant and lasting difference in their quality of life – by enabling them to obtain a better education, or to relocate for a job opportunity that would have been a turning point in their lives.   For some, the lack of money is a constant distress.

In that sense, money does not buy happiness so much as it keeps anguish at bay: happiness is correlated to wealth up to about $75,000 per year – before that amount each increase in income has a corresponding increase in happiness, after that amount the slope flattens out considerably.   People in that income range have the money they need to satisfy their basic needs and to obtain some level of convenience and comfort – anything more buys luxury that does not increase happiness.   And this, perhaps, is the level at which more money cannot buy more happiness, at least in a general sense.

And then there is the matter of the hedonic treadmill, a theory that suggests people become accustomed to a certain level of stimulation.  When they experience a new sensation, their pleasure is intense – but as that sensation perpetuates, they become inured to it and need more stimulation in order to experience pleasure again.   So what is needed is not a stable level of income, but an ever-increasing one, such that there is a constant increase in the stimulation they sense.

However, that does not ring true given the slope of the material happiness curve: the amount of pleasure gained from a certain amount of money would not flatline after a certain point – there would still be a marginal increase in happiness per unit of income, and that is not evident.

There is also evidence that money is not a sufficient cause for happiness.  Historically, wealth has increased significantly over time and people today are nearly three times as wealthy as they were fifty years ago – this is across all social classes, even the poor are richer than they have ever been in history.   Meanwhile, studies of happiness show little improvement.  

What is needed to prove or disprove the correlation is a study in the change of wealth – to correlate happiness with wealth is a good start, but three people at a given level of income may have different histories.  The person who has been at that level of income for several years may be moderately happy, one who has recently risen to that level may be ecstatic, and one who has experienced a misfortune that reduced their income to that level may be miserable.  The average score would average the three together, washing out the effects of the change.

So to correlate material wealth to happiness would also require a study of the changes in wealth – while it is entirely reasonable to assume that there is a correlation between change in wealth and change in happiness, to my knowledge this has never been quantified.

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