Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

On happiness, money and giving it away

Happiness disappears below a certain level of income, but above that level it does not increase

By Peter Singer

Would you be happier if you were richer? Many people believe that they would be. But research conducted over many years suggests that greater wealth implies greater happiness only at quite low levels of income. People in the US, for example, are, on average, richer than New Zealanders, but they are not happier. More dramatically, people in Austria, France, Japan and Germany appear to be no happier than people in much poorer countries like Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines.

Comparisons between countries with different cultures are difficult, but the same effect appears within countries, except at very low income levels, such as below US$12,000 annually for the US. Beyond that point, an increase in income doesn't make a lot of difference to people's happiness. Americans are richer than they were in the 1950s, but they are not happier. Americans in the middle-income range today -- that is, a family income of US$50,000 to US$90,000 -- have a level of happiness that is almost identical to that of well-off Americans with a family income of more than US$90,000.

Most surveys of happiness simply ask people how satisfied they are with their lives. We cannot place great confidence in such studies, because this kind of overall "life satisfaction" judgment may not reflect how much people really enjoy the way they spend their time.

My Princeton University colleague, Daniel Kahneman, and several co-researchers tried to measure people's subjective well-being by asking them about their mood at frequent intervals during a day. In an article published in Science on June 30, they reported that their data confirmed that there is little correlation between income and happiness. On the contrary, Kahneman and his colleagues found that people with higher incomes spent more time in activities that are associated with negative feelings, such as tension and stress. Instead of having more time for leisure, they spent more time at and commuting to work. They were more often in moods that they described as hostile, angry, anxious and tense.

Of course, there is nothing new in the idea that money does not buy happiness. Many religions instruct us that attachment to material possessions makes us unhappy. The Beatles reminded us that money can't buy us love.

Even Adam Smith, who told us that it is not from the butcher's benevolence that we get our dinner, but from his regard for his self-interest, described the imagined pleasures of wealth as "a deception" -- though one that also "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind."

Nevertheless, there is something paradoxical about this. Why do governments all focus on increasing per capita national income? Why do so many of us strive to obtain more money, if it won't make us happier?

Perhaps the answer lies in our nature as purpose-oriented beings. We evolved from beings who had to work hard to feed themselves, find a mate and raise children. For nomadic societies, there was no point in owning anything that one could not carry, but once humans settled down and developed a monetary system, that limit to acquisition disappeared.

Accumulating money up to a certain amount provides a safeguard against lean times, but today it has become an end in itself, a way of measuring one's status or success, and a goal to fall back on when we can think of no other reason for doing anything, but would be bored doing nothing. Making money gives us something to do that feels worthwhile, as long as we do not reflect too much on why we are doing it.

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