Can You Buy Happiness?

Ask anyone about their ambitions and happiness will be weaved somehow into their answer. Happiness is that ubiquitous goal that everyone wants to achieve.  But what is so important about happiness? For a start, what even is happiness?

The generally accepted definition of happiness is ‘subjective well-being’, in other words, it’s about how you feel. A sense of immediate pleasure or long term contentment are both acceptable in this case. If a psychologist wanted to find out how happy you are, she would invite you to her lab, hand you over a questionnaire and ask you to grade on a scale of zero to ten your agreement with statements such as ‘I feel pleased with the way I am’, ‘I feel that life is very rewarding’ and ‘I am optimistic about the future’. The higher your total average score, the higher your subjective well being. She will then use the results to correlate happiness with various objective factors such as health and education.

A popular comparison is money and happiness and, in fact, more money does lead to more happiness, but only up to a certain point. Estimates for the UK and the rest of Western Europe indicate that when a household’s income rises above £76,000 a year, money has a negligible effect on the household’s wellbeing. What’s fascinating is how low this sum is. Let’s say that you are living with your partner and without children, then that’s an income of £38,000 each. A penthouse and two Ferraris are clearly off the cards. I don’t think that when you tell yourself that you want to be rich and successful, you imagine a salary of £38,000. What’s even more surprising is that the cut-off point varies across the world and in poorer economies the figure is even less.

In Eastern Europe the split is £17,000 each, adjusting for the fact that a dollar goes further in Sarajevo than in London. Clearly, we are more concerned about relative income than absolute income. After all, Versace doesn’t sell its jumpers for less in poorer nations. Presented with two financial scenarios, earn £50,000 a year while everybody else earns £25,000 or earn £100,000 a year while everybody else earns £150,000, we prefer to take the lower amount just so we can be richer than our friends. Money then becomes a tool to judge our status in society, telling us how we should think about ourselves. Money though cares little about your happiness. 

Thankfully, happiness is not solely dependent on objective conditions, rather it’s based on our subjective expectations and whether the objective conditions meet them. If you want an iPhone and you get an iPhone, you are content. If you want a brand-new Mercedes and you get a second-hand Hyundai, you feel deprived. Let’s say you win the lottery, your expectations have skyrocketed so now even major improvements in your life can leave you dissatisfied. What if instead, you have a car accident and break your leg, your expectations have deflated so that small improvements can leave you feeling content. In the long run, whether you win the lottery or break your leg, you will be as happy as you were before.

Alarmingly, your potential for contentment is being limited today by an advertising industry that judges its success based on managing your expectations. It’s easy to feel inadequate because we compare ourselves to everyone who has an Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn profile. Gone are the days when you could feel pride because you were the best-looking person in the village, for a woman especially, you are now up against plastic-fortified supermodels whose breasts and thighs go beyond the limits of Darwinian evolution. Expectations therefore are getting harder to manage.

It’s worth noting that subjective well-being questionnaires are far from a perfect way to measure happiness. Firstly, the findings are just correlations – we are not able to say whether one causes the other. For example, happiness and access to healthcare are correlated but this does not mean that more hospitals and doctors make us happier. Secondly, it could be the other way round. Maybe happiness makes people richer and healthier. After all, people who are generally happy and content are more employable and more likely to progress up the career ladder, giving them a greater chance of earning more money and getting access to better healthcare. 

In addition, we struggle to accurately report our own emotions. I couldn’t tell you that when I dented my car I was anger level 6.4 or that when I met my girlfriend I was happy level 9.2. We just don’t think like that. Lastly, it’s all too easy to misinterpret these findings and think that if I go and earn more money, I will be happier. It’s more likely, that if you are unhappy and poor, you will be unhappy and rich.

How many people look at their time at university as some of the best days of their life. Looking back now, you are likely to be much richer today than when you were a student. So tell me, are you happier now?

Inspiration: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

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