Can a Lack of Green Leave You Blue? A Glimpse at the Science of "Happiness Economics"
by Daniel J. Durand
Payday: the day workers rejoice. As they rip into the envelope and yank out their check, note the addition to their bank accounts, or just count those sweet dollar bills, a person can't help but feel... what? If the saying, “Money can't buy me happiness,” is true, then one assumes that payday would be a joyless experience. Is this the case?
Yes and no. Buying Happiness, the Depressing Reality of Materialism , by Peter Dodson, claims that the pursuit of wealth is the leading cause of depression in Canada and the United States. Dodson suggests that “our bodies are reacting naturally to discourage us from engaging in a consumer culture that is not delivering on its promise”, and cites research supporting the idea that depression is actually a biological response to “negative situations”. Those situations are the stresses brought on by the hectic lifestyle and impulse purchases of modern materialistic society, an environment devoid of “emotional, mental, or physical benefit” (Dodson).
However, according to Richard Easterlin in his paper, Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence , money does in fact contribute to happiness. He backs up this claim with the work of one Hadly Cantril, who in the mid-sixties conducted a series of surveys across the globe to determine exactly whether or not wealth affects happiness. Cantril found that among the participants in the American survey, 65% placed their personal hopes in the “Economic” category. These “personal hopes” were the aspirations each respondent believed would make them happier, and were based on sub-categories such as “Personal Health”, “Modern Conveniences”, and “Decent Standard of Living” (Easterlin 94).
The intelligent reader might quickly point out that these personal hopes were based on perceived happiness, as each participant was asked to state what might have made them happier in the future, rather than actual happiness, as in how happy each respondent was at the time and why. If this were the case, it would be unknown whether or not monetary gain would truly result in happiness, as the study is only going so far as to suggest it might. Just because respondents reported a belief, does not necessarily make that belief true. More study would be necessary to confirm if the actual presence of wealth, and not merely the idea of future gain, is linked to happiness.
Another study conducted by AIPO (now the Gallup Organization), running from 1946 to 1970, measured the happiness of Americans by income level. The survey was one of twenty-nine focusing on this exact topic, and all showed similar results. For example, 11% of respondents listing themselves under the “poor” category also considered themselves “Not Very Happy” in 1946; this number climbed to 13% in 1970. It was recorded that those in the “wealthy” category consistently had lower percentages of “Not Very Happy” people, with only 3% in 1946 and 4% in 1970. “In every single survey,” Easterlin writes, “those in the highest status group were happier, on the average, than those in the lower status group” (Easterlin 100).
These results, combined with those of the Cantril survey, suggest that not only does the prospect of a wealthier tomorrow result in perceived happiness, but also that the presence of wealth results in lower percentages of unhappy people amongst those who have it. International data from countries such as West Germany, Thailand, and others, coincide with these results (Easterlin 101). In other words, the idea of people splitting into the “Haves” and “Have Nots” isn't too far from reality.
One would suppose that, logically, if the presence of wealth is directly associated with happiness, then, on an international level, wealthier nations would have higher amounts of happy people than poorer ones. Surprisingly, this is not always the case. A study of international happiness levels by country compared to their individual GDP showed that higher earning countries such as the US and Great Britain did in fact rate highest on the list at 4%; on the bottom of the list however were France and Italy, with 18% and 33% of those polled claiming to be unhappy. In terms of GDP, France ranked fourth, and Italy was number five. Most surprisingly is that Thailand, while ranking lowest in GDP, was number three on the list of nine countries in terms of happiness (Easterlin 107).
Taking a look at some of these countries from 1960 to 1965, the years the survey was being conducted, provides some clarification and some confusion. West Germany and Thailand, ranking numbers two and three respectively, were both doing well economically due to American influence and the Cold War. The West Germans were experimenting with consumerism, enacting new economic legislation, hiring refugee labor from Soviet-controlled East Germany, and building up their financial and banking capacity (“The Economic Miracle of Germany”).
Thailand, while not having as high of a GDP as the other countries surveyed, was miles ahead of where it had been in years past. Having set up a semi-secret alliance with the United States during the beginning of the Vietnam War, the country was infused with Western culture, ideas, and money. This ultimately led to an increased standard of living and a population boom for the Thai people, many of whom began to migrate into urban areas (“Thailand: History, Geography, Government and Culture”).
West Germany and Thailand seem to support the idea that money equals happiness, as do the United States and Great Britain. All four of these nations enjoy high levels of income and low percentages of unhappiness. Combined with the results of the other surveys mentioned so far, one would conclude that, since people expect money to make them happier, and since the presence of wealth does indeed impact personal satisfaction, the statistics of these countries are logical and predictable.
France and Italy throw a monkey wrench into the works. France had granted independence to nearly all of its overseas colonies by 1964, greatly reducing the expenses stemming from maintaining them (“France: Colonial Empire”). France also saw significant economic gains during the decade, adding greatly to the French GDP (“France-Economy”). Italy was in the same boat as France, having made great advancements economically thanks to investment and the popularity of Italian exports (“Italy- Overview of Economy”). Yet despite their economic success, these were the unhappiest nations surveyed.
Why, then, would the pattern of successful countries being the happiest not apply to two countries in particular? With these results in mind, it appears that prosperity can and does make a difference in a population's happiness. One might speculate that the inconsistencies when dealing with France and Italy are a result of cultural, rather than economic factors.
French people for example, from the view of a non-French person, have the popular stereotype of being rude and arrogant, when in fact the French view themselves as being independent and enjoy giving criticism (“Intercultural Differences”). Italians tend not to place emphasis on work as the center of life, and get their first jobs in their early twenties rather than their teens (“Being Italian: An Insight into Italian Stereotypes”), traits which may be considered lazy or irresponsible by outsiders. Both cultures are in fact unique, and it is quite possible they hold a different definition of happiness than those held by other nations. When one accounts for the general lack in economic, social, or political strife in those countries at the time of the survey, the cultural element must, by process of elimination, be the primary cause for the high percentage of unhappiness.
Combining all of the information presented so far, it appears that money can effect happiness, as evidenced by individual expectations, the lower percentage of unhappy people amongst the wealthy, and the international trend associating high income countries with happy citizens. It can also be concluded that, while money can effect happiness, that does not necessarily mean that it does , which is proven by the exceptions of France and Italy, and the fact that even amongst the wealthy, both on the individual and national levels, some unhappiness does exist . If wealth equaled happiness, period, than those with money who were surveyed would have had zero percent unhappiness, which means that money is not an absolute cause of joy. This would explain how different cultures, and other factors such as religion, marital status, and so on might effect a person's happiness, whether or not they have good cash flow.
The simple truth is that happiness is an arbitrary concept. What makes one person happy may very well disgust another person. The only constant about happiness is that everyone seeks it, which makes it very difficult to analyze effectively. Whether or not money can buy a person happiness is a useless question; the better question is, what is the happiness they are trying to buy?
“ Being Italian”. Just Landed. 15 Sept. 2010. <http://www.justlanded.com/english/Italy/Articles/Culture/Being-Italian>.
Dodson, Peter. “Buying Happiness: The Depressing Reality of Materialism”. Briarpatch Magazine . 20 Sept. 2010. <http://briarpatchmagazine.com/buying-happiness-the-depressing-reality-of- materialism/>
Easterlin, Richard A. “Does Economic Growth Effect the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence”. The New York Times . 13 Sept. 2010. <http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/04/16/business/Easterlin1974.pdf>.
“The Economic Miracle of Germany”. German Culture. 20 Sept. 2010.
“ France- Economy”. Encyclopedia of Nations. 14 Sept. 2010.
“France: Colonial Empire”. Flags of the World. 20 Sept. 2010.
“ Intercultural Differences!”. Better Understand France and the French. 15 Sept. 2010. <http://www.understandfrance.org/France/Intercultural.html#stereo>
“ Italy- Overview of Economy”. Encyclopedia of the Nations. 14 Sept. 2010. <http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Europe/Italy-OVERVIEW-OF- ECONOMY.html>.
“Thailand: History, Geography, Government and Culture”. Infoplease. 20 Sept. 2010.
More by this Author
An interpretation of Claude Monet's painting "Impression, Sunrise", one of the most famous paintings of the Impressionist movement.