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Owning more things and accruing more wealth may provide only a partial fix; it does not ensure long-term happiness. Research shows that when people fulfil their lives around extrinsic goals such as product acquisition, they report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems.
More Materialism, More Misery
“Almost everyone believes that getting what you want makes you feel good about yourself and your life”, Kasser says. “Common wisdom, as well as many psychological theories, says that if we reach our goals, our self-esteem and satisfaction with life should consequently rise…” However “people who are wildly successful in their attempts to attain money and status often remain unfulfilled once they have reached their goal”.
In recent years, researchers have reported an ever-growing list of downsides to getting and spending – damage to relationship and self-esteem, a heightened risk of depression and anxiety, less time for what the research indicates truly makes people happy (like family, friendship and engaging work), and maybe, even headaches.
“Consumer culture is continually bombarding us with the message that materialism will make us happy,” said Kasser, who has led some of the recent work. But this, he says, is far from true.
People, whose values centre on the accumulation of wealth or material possessions, face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy – regardless of age, income, or culture. Materialistic values actually undermine our well-being, as they perpetuate feelings of insecurity, weaken the ties that bind us, and make us feel less free.
Research shows that people in rich countries are not happier than those in poorer ones.
University of Illinois psychologist Edward Diener (who made the Masai discovery) has been studying what makes people happy for more than 25 years. One of his more compelling findings is that the wealthiest nations aren’t necessarily the happiest.
Diener, and many other social scientists, say that once people’s basic needs are met, an increase in income has little, if any, effect on their sense of well-being.
According to British economist Richard Layard, who has written one of the most celebrated works about this, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005), growth in the rich countries since the 1950s has not contributed to more happiness.
After a national income of $20,000 a year, Layard says, “additional income is not associated with extra happiness”.
According to psychologist Oliver James, author of They F*** You Up, most people in the developed world were no happier than people were in the 1950s when they were less affluent.
“A typical 25-year-old today is between 3 and 10 times more likely to suffer major depression compared to the 1950s. It seems that once you reach a certain level of income, an annual salary of around £15,000, increasing affluence has no impact on whether you are likely to be happier. In fact, the more you earn, the less likely you are to be happy”, he cautions.
The same is true of Japan, which was a very poor country in 1960. Between then and the late 1980s, its per capita income rose almost 4-fold, placing it among the highest in the industrialised world. Yet the average happiness level reported by the Japanese was no higher in 1987 than in 1960 (Happiness in Nations, 1993 – as cited by Robert H. Frank in “How Not to Buy Happiness” in Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Vol. 133, Issue 2, Spring 2004).
People there had many more washing machines, cars, cameras, and other things than they used to, but they did not register significant gains on the happiness scale.
Similar conclusions were also made by the economist Richard Easterlin in a study about Japan (“Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence”, as cited in the book, Nations and Households in Economic Growth, 1974).
He pointed out that since the 1950s, income in Japan increased almost 10-fold, but the Japanese are no happier today than they were then.
In the west today, increases in economic output and consump-tion are also no longer being matched by increases in people’s reported levels of happiness. This was noted in Germany, although “(during) the 1980s, the West Germans had double the incomes of the poor Irish, who year after year reported more satisfaction with their lives,” said David Myers, a sociologist at Hope College in Michigan who authored the 1993 book The Pursuit of Happiness.
Similarly, IN BRITAIN, incomes have trebled since 1950 but happiness has not increased at all, Britain’s The Sunday Times (2 October 2005) reports.
In the US, social scientists report that that after attaining a certain earnings level of about $40,000, increased affluence hardly affects happiness.
“Compared with their grandparents, today’s young adults have grown up with much more afflue-nce, slightly less happiness and a much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology,” notes Hope College psychologist David G. Myers, PhD, author of an article, which appeared in the American Psychologist (Vol. 55, No. 1).
“Our becoming much better off over the last 4 decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being.”
That’s no preachy philosophy, but an emerging scientific verdict from a growing body of research today. Based on statistics and psychological tests, psychologists today are repeating what clerics and philosophers have preached for millennia: Money can’t buy happiness (or health) – but happiness (and health) may buy money.
We examine why money is your best friend and also your worst enemy, probe the hidden causes of modern society’s money mania, and investigate if materialism is indeed bad for health, as psychologists everywhere now warn.
MONEY cannot buy happiness. Health is wealth. These age-old sayings are increasingly being validated by research findings and are today being doled out more than ever to consumers everywhere as modern society strives for wealth and gets caught up in the advertising-ruled culture of buying more, owning more, and throwing more – at the risk to their own well-being, happiness and health.
Over the past decade, the study of happiness, formerly the preserve of philosophers, therapists and gurus, has morphed into a bona fide discipline (New Scientist, 4 October 2003). You can find “professors of happiness” at leading universities, “quality of life” institutes the world over, and thousands of research papers (There are now about 3,000 published papers on the subject of happiness alone.) It even has its own journal, the Journal of Happiness Studies.
And policy advisers are getting interested. In the United Kingdom, the Cabinet Office has held a string of seminars on life satisfaction, and in December 2003 the British prime minister’s Strategy Unit published a paper recommending policies that might increase the nation’s happiness.
A World Database of Happiness has also been created in the last few years.
Happiness Can Be Measured
Human happiness is a real phenomenon that can be measured (“Personality and Subjective Well-Being,” Understanding Well-Being: Scientific Perspectives on Enjoyment and Suffering, The Russell Sage Foundation, 1998).
To measure happiness, psy-chologists use surveys and a variety of other measures that are strongly correl-ated with observable behaviours that we as-sociate with well-being. For example, if you’re happy, you’re more likely to initiate social contact with friends, and you’re more likely to respond positively when others ask you for help.
And if you’re happy, you’re also less likely to suffer from psychosomatic illnesses – eg: digestive disorders, other stress disorders and headaches. A happy person is also less likely to be absent from work or to get involved in disputes at work. He or she is also less likely to attempt suicide – the ultimate behavioural measure of unhappiness.
Who’s Happy, Who’s Not
In a recent study (World Values Survey) (1999-2001) of more than 65 countries by an international network of social scientists, it was found that the happiest people in the world live in Africa and the least happy in Eastern Europe.
The survey, a worldwide investigation of socio-cultural and political change conducted about every 4 years, indicates that Nigeria has the highest percentage of happy people followed by Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico, while Russia, Armenia and Romania have the fewest.
The findings were published in the New Scientist in 2003. The international survey, among others, questioned people about how happy they are and how satisfied they are with their lives.
“New Zealand ranked 15th for overall satisfaction, the US 16th, Australia 20th and Britain 24th – although Australia beats the other three for day-to-day happiness,” the New Scientist says.
This, and many other happiness studies have uncovered a sobering truth about money that many people today have yet to realise.
In order not to be caught off-guard by the next sales, do not buy if the excuse for buying falls into any of the 12 below:
Many give in to these “ought tos” because they are afraid of what friends, neighbours or relatives will say if they do not conform to what is expected of them. Some of the more common “ought tos” are listed below:
2. But everyone in the neighbourhood has one… You don’t even have time to watch local television but you’re subscribing to Astro just because all your friends and relatives have one. That’s a sheer waste of money.
3. I really ought to buy something because the sales person has been so nice to me and I have taken up so much of her time… Sales assistants do not expect to make a sale with each and every customer. So a nice thank you and an apology for not finding anything you like will be enough.
4. It would cost a lot just to fix up the old appliance… Don’t assume that it is not going to be worthwhile to have the appliance repaired. Get an estimate of the repair costs before deciding on a new appliance.
5. It’s so pretty and cute. That may be so but it probably has a price to match and besides you don’t need it. Do not give in to impulse buying.
6. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… Maybe, but for whom? It could be the last opportunity for the retailer to get rid of a product which will be outdated once the latest model floods the market in a few weeks’ time.
7. I am sick of shopping and my feet hurt… Then go home and finish your shopping another day. Don’t buy something which is going to hurt your purse a lot more than your feet are hurting now.
8. It will keep peace in the family… Perhaps, but at what cost? Not is it only cheaper decision but it may teach the members of the family the art of give and take.
9. It’s just this once and I owe it to myself… Perhaps, but only if you have not used this excuse for the last few months and the purchase will not burn a hole in the family budget.
10. I know I can’t afford it but… If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.
11. It isn’t exactly what I need but… No buts, get what you set out to buy or else it might not be fit for the purpose and you will end up still having to buy what you intended to originally.
12. Why not?… Because you will be throwing good money down the drain, that’s why.