Money on your mind – it’s a very complicated relationship
When there are two cars in every garage, a third is unnecessary, and a fourth is positively burdensome.
So wrote Ronald Inglehart, a sociologist who wondered why what people want out of life has changed so much since the 1950s.
Inglehart believed that technological advancement meant that most basic human needs had been met in advanced economies. As societies became better able to produce goods, citizens came to demand social and political rights to activities that would allow them to flourish intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
This article is part of our supplement on happiness, which unites us all. For more happiness stories visit our dedicated page.
Thence came the environmentalist and feminist movements of the 1970s, the techno-libertarians of the early 2000s and, nowadays, the clamour of cosseted millennials demanding stimulating jobs.
Citizens of advanced economies, even after the 2008 crisis, are as well off or as close to as well off – in material terms – as they ever have been. But are they happier than their ancestral forebears?
A simple question, then: Does money make you happy?
One piece of research, by an economist called Richard Easterlin, found that it doesn’t. After examining a measure of subjective well-being and per capita GDP trends across the United States between 1946 and 1970, Easterlin saw no clear relationship between the two. This result is known as the Easterlin Paradox.
This result didn’t settle the question, since Easterlin’s measures of money and happiness are fairly easy to argue with.
A project at the London School of Economics has conducted a large body of research aiming to assess why happiness varies across populations and how it varies with income.
Their work has suggested a few modifications to Easterlin’s results.
Richard Layard, a labour market economist who was hired by the UK government to consult on efforts to measure happiness, argues that widespread and undiagnosed mental-health problems are a major cause of misery in advanced societies, irrespective of income.
In the UK, fewer than one quarter of people with mental health problems receive treatment. In the Gulf, where the stigma associated with mental-heath problems is greater, this figure is likely to be much higher.
Individuals also care how much those around them make. Earning a lot of money isn’t enough, the LSE research suggests – what also matters is how much money those around you earn. Pay cheque envy is why Michael Lewis wrote, of millionaire investment bankers in Liar’s Poker, that getting paid was sheer misery for almost everybody.
Alain de Botton wrote a book called Status Anxiety in 2004 in which he offered this nugget of observation: “Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually possess.”
But the hip-hop artist Ludacris, in the song Large Amounts, would disagree: “In this life one thing counts / in the bank, large amounts.”
In short, it’s a matter of perspective.
Updated: April 17, 2016 04:00 AM