Beiträge vom 27. August 2010

Happiness research beyond income

Freitag, 27. August 2010 0:31

The NYTimes reports on a new development in both scientific and everyday thinking about happiness. Partly accelerated by the recent depression, there seems to be a movement of people discovering that earning money did not actually make them happy, but that „downsizing“ their material life did, sometimes even though it was forced by loss of income.

Websites like RowdyKittens are popping up, sharing advice on simple living (I personally like The Only Guide to Happiness You’ll Ever Need that it links to a lot, I think my next important step is slowing down …). And Roko Belic made a Documentary called „Happy“ that I can’t wait to see, the trailer looks amazing. His bottom line seems to be:

The one single trait that’s common among every single person who is happy is strong relationships.

On the other hand, science has taken on the task of happiness again. The mission can be summed up by the introductory paragraph from a paper titled „If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right“ (supposedly forthcoming in The Journal of Consumer Psychology):

Scientists have studied the relationship between money and happiness for decades and their conclusion is clear: Money buys happiness, but it buys less than most people think (Aknin, Norton, & Dunn, 2009; Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002; Frey & Stutzer, 2000). The correlation between income and happiness is positive but modest, and this fact should puzzle us more than it does. After all, money allows people to do what they please, so shouldn’t they be pleased when they spend it? Why doesn’t a whole lot more money make us a whole lot more happy? One answer to this question is that the things that bring happiness simply aren’t for sale. This sentiment is lovely, popular, and almost certainly wrong. Money allows people to live longer and healthier lives, to buffer themselves against worry and harm, to have leisure time to spend with friends and family, and to control the nature of their daily activities—all of which are sources of happiness (Smith, Langa, Kabeto, & Ubel, 2005). Wealthy people don’t just have better toys; they have better nutrition and better medical care, more free time and more meaningful labor—more of just about every ingredient in the recipe for a happy life. And yet, they aren’t that much happier than those who have less. If money can buy happiness, then why doesn’t it?

Because people don’t spend it right.

And while they provide some reasonable and non-trivial advice („Principle 3: Buy Many Small Pleasures Instead of Few Big Ones“, e.g., or „Principle 5: Pay Now and Consume Later“ [!]), there’s something about that approach that worries me. I think two of the other recommendations illustrate that: „Principle 1: Buy Experiences Instead of Things“ and „Principle 2: Help Others Instead of Yourself“.

I follow the notion that experiencing something ultimately contributes more to our life than having something, and that a central part of our happiness is relatedness. I just doubt that money is the right frame to discuss these issues in. There are much simpler ways of both experiencing something and connecting with other people than spending money on either. And they both are prone to leading right into the next consumption wave, this time not about big TV sets, but amazing massage spas and, ahm, massage vouchers for our partners and friends?! Why not give that massage yourself?

On top of that, the „spend your money wisely“-approach keeps people working long hours, which for most people will tend to decrease happiness.

So the new talk about happiness seems to go right over the divide between a materialistic and spiritualistic view of life, and I’m quite excited to see how it will evolve.

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