A friend of mine, Steve Moeller, did research on the science of happiness. He gathered information to write a book about what really makes people happy. He gave me permission to share some excerpts with you from an article he wrote for Investment Advisor magazine. I found his thoughts very interesting, and hope you will too.
The assumption that more money will make us happier is etched into our consciousness. Happiness is something we all want; it’s the holy grail of Western civilization. Biologists have recently proven that all higher species from lizards up to humans are biologically programmed to pursue pleasure and positive emotions. It’s a basic subconscious drive that all creatures have. Everything we do, we do because we consciously or unconsciously believe that it will make us happy.
That more money will lead directly to more happiness is such a basic assumption that most people never stop to question it. When researchers at the University of Michigan asked research subjects what would improve the quality of their lives, the majority of the respondents said “more money.”
The assumption that more money will bring us more happiness is etched into our consciousness, championed by our culture, promoted with billions of dollars of advertising each year, and institutionalized in our public policy. And it is still the primary promise of benefits that many investment advisors focus on. But is it true?
“Happiness” researchers have conducted more than 150 surveys all over the world with more than a 1 million participants. Let’s take a look at what they have learned.
Since the end of WWII the purchasing power of American households has tripled. New homes are now twice as big as they were after the war, we have twice as many cars per person, and we eat out more often. The average American now lives much better than most of the kings and queens throughout history.
So are we happier? No!!
This spectacular increase in wealth has had almost no positive effective on our society’s happiness. In fact, from 1957 to 1996 the proportion of people telling the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center that they are “very happy” declined slightly (from 35% to 30%.) Over the same time period; divorce doubled, the prison population quintupled and major depression rose tenfold, turning it into the fourth most common debilitating disease. America’s not alone; Europe and Japan have experienced the same basic trends.
One of the happiness researchers’ more noteworthy findings came from a survey of Forbe’s 400 wealthiest Americans. These cent millionaires and billionaires were asked to rate their life satisfaction from “extremely dissatisfied” (1) to “extremely satisfied” (7). Surprisingly, the respondents’ average rating was 5.7, only slightly above the average rating.
But here’s the really interesting part. Masai tribesmen from Kenya in East Africa also participated in the life satisfaction survey. Although they live in huts made out of dirt and cow dung, herd cattle for a living, have no electricity or running water, and don’t have any money, they also rated themselves a 5.7 in the life satisfaction scale.
Quite a few studies now show that believing that money is more important than other values—like relationships with loved ones, spirituality, a feeling that your life is contributing to the greater good—is actually detrimental to happiness. Clearly there’s more to happiness than wealth, luxury and material comforts.
So, how much is the right amount of money to maximize our happiness? Here’s the bottom line from the scientific research on happiness—once we have enough money to pay for life’s basics like food, clothing and housing, more money has very little impact on our happiness.
More money does buy more happiness and well-being if you are poor, and increases fairly quickly until you achieve a solid middle class income. But research shows once your household income reaches the middle class range, increased income has a diminishing positive impact on your happiness and well-being.
The point is, above a certain income level, which isn’t by any means “wealthy”, additional income alone has almost no impact on our happiness. And depending on the price you pay to earn it, more income could even reduce your quality of life.
In fact, a large and growing number of studies support happiness researcher Ed Diener’s comment that, “Materialism is toxic for happiness.” But most Americans don’t seem to believe this.
Why, if we tell researchers that more money doesn’t make us happier, do we chase it so hard? We could blame it on advertisers and the media, two giant institutions that have a vested interest in having us consume more and more stuff each year. But there is another, more subtle villain; the subconscious workings of our brain.
Psychologists have developed a term “hedonic treadmill” to describe humans adaptation to more wealth and material goods. So if you get a new car, you will be happier for a while, but then you will adapt, and so think it’s normal. In order to maintain the same level of happiness through consumption, you must continually buy new things. This is what the concept of “retail therapy” is all about. Adaptation is great for the economy, but bad for you and your financial security.
As an investment advisor, I often work with people who believe that more money will buy them more happiness. As evidenced by this article, in reality, I should help clients determine what will really make them happy and then determine how much income their ideal life will require. It may be a lot less than they originally thought.
About the Author
Dave Young, President and founder of Paragon Wealth Management, started Paragon in 1986. Today he continues to invest and research ways he can improve his business to serve his clients better. His methods have attracted national and local attention. He has been interviewed by BusinessWeek, CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, the Deseret Morning News and other national and local media. He also writes for Paragon’s blog called Money Manager’s Live and other publications.