CAN MONEY BUY HAPPINESS.
If you ask the average American what the single most important factor for happiness and quality of living is, most of them would probably answer: More money.
The more green the better. The more money the happier we are.
I don’t know if you buy into statistics, experiments, and reports on human conditions and experiences, but they seem to be pointing the opposite direction (perhaps personal experiences can affirm). The fact that more money and more stuff isn’t making us happier, but it’s actually making us more miserable. The United States is the world’s richest, most wasteful, and most affluent nation yet it contains some of the world’s most miserable people.
This is a stark contrast to our grandparents a couple of generations ago; we are richer, living bigger, faster and more materially abundant. The average American now owns twice as many cars, significantly larger homes, and more material goods; gross domestic product per capita has tripled since 1950. Communication is faster and easier with cellular phones and the internet; all the while our TVs become bigger, flatter, and more clear. Food is everywhere, meat is cheaper, people are fatter while we are making and using up more plastic, paper, and petroleum than any other time period and anywhere else in the world. America has enough food to feed the entire planet, and each of us uses up more energy in a day than somebody else from a developing country uses up in a year.
But holistically, we seem to be more depressed than ever despite the increase of economic and material growth since the last generation.
I’m not a big fan of using stats and numbers to quantify the quality of human experiences, but for the sake of this argument, I’m going to throw out some numbers:
In 1940s, America was the forth happiest among advanced economies. 10 years later, it dropped to eighth. In 1950 the numbers of Americans who said they were “very happy with their lives on average” peaked in the 50s, and ever since then the proportion of happy Americans dropped to just a quarter. From the year 1991 to 2004, the economy expanded rapidly under the Clinton boom, but the numbers of “negative life experiences” increased, as more and more people are slitting their wrists, visiting the shrinks, and divorcing.
You see, our grandparents had less space to fill up with their junk. They lived in small houses/barns, but instead of more “stuff”, it was more people. The square footage per household has increased significantly from previous generations, but the people per household has decreased. So people talked and ate together more, they played together outside and socialized more.
We live in isolation in both our homes and in our communities. How can we not? The way our whole infrastructure is designed is geared towards having your own private “American Dream” space.
The suburban sprawl is the by-product of our irrational drive for isolation. Because we all want to stay as far away from our neighbors as possible, everyone and everything is designed to be so far away from each other that not only are people lacking interactions, they are completely dependent on cars to get to places, as they are walking less, getting fatter, and leaving more carbon footprints along the way.
Even the interior designs of new houses are geared towards dysfunctional families who prefer to stay to themselves for private entertainment. Our living rooms are smaller, while bathroom rooms and bedrooms are bigger.
This whole notion of “more space for crap, but less people for interaction” is going against our natural instincts. Human beings are hardwired to be social animals; living in big groups is what got us here through the millions of years of evolution/struggle for survival. No wonder we are not really “living” anymore by surrounding ourselves with IKEA-mongering activities and material goods.
But we have another instinctual drive that helped our ancestors survive in the past, but is working against us in modernity: The innate drive to acquire or the Will to consume.
We are designed by nature, along with all any other organisms, to be consumers. We are born with the need to acquire and to acquire more. It is part of how evolution produces any reproducing organism: to be a consuming animal, to have endless needs and wants.
Having this drive to acquire our needs was a way our genes use our bodies and minds/brains as vessels to carry and pass on our genes to the next generations since it guarantees that we eat and reproduce. Our ancestors used this innate desire to hunt and gather food, build tools and shelters to satisfy our basic needs. But that’s really all we need; everything else above our basic needs of food and shelters are wants.
With the invention of agriculture that produced surpluses, the majority of the people didn’t have to worry about hunting or other means of acquiring food or building our own shelters. The means to consume our basic needs are satisfied for the most of us who live in industrialized world. This is leaving a big hunk of space in our innate will to consume. So we find other means to satisfy this biological need to acquire:
We “hunted” big checks and status by working corporate jobs. We “gathered” status symbols by buying useless crap at shopping malls and electronic stores until we are all trapped in the great Cycle of Pursuit.
How much is enough? How much do we really want to be happy?
If happiness is relative, then we need an anchor to measure how happy we are. And this anchor is usually other people’s level of happiness. It’s too bad that our culture has made us believe (yes this is one of those things that I blame culture for instead of genetics) that happiness means having more materials and money.
The amount of status symbols and wealth has become our one of the anchors we use to measuring our own happiness level against other people’s. – How much stuff other people have in comparison to your own collection of stuff determines how happy you are. If I bought a ferrari, I would feel pretty important only up until everybody else in my neighborhood starts driving ferraris too. When my ferrari loses its status, I would need an upgrade and purchase a private jet in order to regain my dominance.
Most reproducing organisms have status symbols to stand out from the crowd from other animals in the same community in order to attract the opposite sex.
Peacock’s tails, bird songs and dances, lion’s mane, are all examples of perceived visible, external denotation and declarations of one’s social position, fitness level and sexual attractiveness. But for the most part, the status symbols of other animals are built-in and limited. A peacock’s tale can only have so many colors, a bird can only sing and dance so much before their body becomes exhausted.
Wealth is the ultimate status symbol for human beings. But what good is money if it’s all inside your bank account, unseen?
Conspicuous consumption is wasteful consumption of of useless things. The more wasteful you are, and the more useless the things you buy are, the more “status” you have and the more “fit” you you are. This is where we tell our friends and neighbors : Look, I have so much money that I can afford stuff that are useless to my survival. (Hummers, jewelries, gold, and so on).
With money however, human beings discover means to acquire endless amounts of status symbols. And what good is a status symbol that is outdated, outnumbered, and outsized?
The more we want to impress everyone else, the more things we need to acquire. The more things YOU require, the more things THEY need to acquire in order to have more than you do; this in turn motivates you to buy more stuff to be happier, and so on.
We are always stretching out our necks in order to inspect what other people are having, or what the latest goods in the markets are in order to consume the newest stuff on the shelf before anybody beats you to it.
Marketers and advertisement agencies are way ahead of psychologists and evolutionary biologists in figuring out how human nature works. They spend a huge amount of effort and money inventing new stuff for you to buy and dreaming up new strategies to make the mindless masses think that they need these things to have a happier and more fulfilling life. They are always asking: How do you get people to buy shit they don’t need? How do you convince people to think that what they want is not a want at all, but necessity?
The desire to consume, acquire, and produce is insatiable. This insatiability is the most desirable weapon in nature. Humans, like all other reproducing species are designed to never stop needing and to never feel satisfied in relation and relative to what’s given in an environment. Without this insatiable desire for needs, organisms cannot and will not reproduce. Nature will not progress. And the universe we know would not exist.
We want what we don’t have, and as soon as we get what we wanted, we want more of it. We live for the future but never for the present moment. We are always projecting ourselves into the future, directing our consciousness at the things we don’t have but want to consume, eat up, deplete, and waste in the future.
So here we are as obsessed consuming creatures, accumulating goods. The more stuff more we buy, the longer hours we need to work to afford everything we bought. The more we work, the more money we have to consume even more stuff.
All that hours spent working is making us pissed off, tired, and stressed out. So what do we do? We reward ourselves and pat ourselves on the backs by spending all that hard-earned money for a vacation or more goods to cope with our stress, which leads to more debts to be paid, longer work hours and so on.
The more things we have, the more we need to consume (accessories and what not) in order to maintain, protect, and upgrade what we already have. Not to mention all these other things we need to buy in order to sustain what we already have. If you buy a car, you’re going need rims, tinted windows, maintenance work, and insurance to go along with it. If you purchase a house, you are going to need a $15,000 painting and a marble statue, a security system, and lots of fancy furniture.
With a great abundance of stuff comes with great responsibility and anxiety. Let’s not forget all the distress and worries and fear that come with owning so much things, since I have to constantly worry about other people stealing my shit, keying my car, breaking into my mansion and so on.
This spirals into what is happening today with the economy…
Which is in shambles. We can get into technicalities, but the core root of the problem stems from greed and foolishness. Broken down, greed from the part of investment bankers and mortgage lenders, and foolishness from the ignorant masses trying to purchase homes that were way beyond their means.
All these aforementioned factors coupled with limited government regulation and oversight leads us to the problems we have today. The simple fact is that we need to have these big corporations fail; this is the way the market is trying to lead itself to self-correction. Pouring tax payer dollars into a sinking ship is not the answer; we must take the tough medicine now and hope for a more stable economy built on a solid foundation of production and savings that will lead us into a brighter future.
in the next section I’ll try to explain why we keep working so hard to acquire all these goods and screwing up the planet along the way and keep thinking that the reason why a lot of us are still unhappy not because we have are going overboard, but because we still have too little of it.
So here we are: Over-consuming, over-wasting, and destroying the planet which has contributed to the current downfall of the economy. We are living bigger, have more stuff, more food, fancier gadgets and have to work harder and longer hours at jobs we hate. But we don’t seem to be happier.
This over-consumption and material-based therapeutic method seems to be working for our happiness and certainly not for our economy. Why are we wasting our time and energy? Why do we still assume that more is better?
First of all, our happiness level seems to have a threshold. Whatever it is that we do to increase our level of happiness, it has a set point that cannot be exceeded. If you are already happy, more happiness isn’t going to yield more benefit or increase your fitness.
If things are right, you don’t need to make them better because they can only improve up to a certain point before experiencing diminishing returns.
Let’s say you enjoy eating your favorite food. It tastes awesome and it makes you happy. Instinctually, this will make you want to eat the same food again because the reward circuits in your brain have been pushed. Suppose you eat the same food again the next day, and the next. Each time you eat it, you feel less and less happy because the food tastes less and less great.
If you keep this up, the food will soon produce no happiness at all, and it is likely that you will start hating the food you ate that you formally liked. Getting more of what you wanted can make you very unhappy indeed.
Think of the life of somebody who is extremely poor – a hobo.
For this person, more money will make his life better and happier, but again only up to a certain point. Let’s imagine this homeless person, through whatever methods starts to accumulate wealth. He gets richer and richer, and more money is buying him more happiness. We see a steady positive correlation between his level of happiness and income. But eventually he reaches a point where any more money he makes has stopped making him happier.
I think economically and materially, we are experiencing a ‘diminishing return’. Our basic needs of food and shelter are so ‘overly satisfied’ that we are overfeeding ourselves with stuff we don’t need. If you think about it, we are literally walking around overfed and bloated physically, mentally, and materially.
Money will continue to buy us happiness perhaps until we reach a certain threshold number, then if we do make more money, it isn’t necessarily going to make us happier. In fact, the correlation between happiness and wealth could disappear, and it may even go backward and make us unhappy.
This correlation/number may explain why on average, the richest Americans score no better on happiness level than the average Amish (if happiness can be empirically defined and registered). And also why homeless people who scored the lowest on happiness scores tripled their scores after they moved into a house, but are no more happier or miserable than your average middle to upper-middle class college students and suburban children.
We tend to think obtaining more wealth is going to make us happier is because we continue to do something that had worked for us in the past while failing to realizing that whatever it is that worked in the past may not work in the future. But we keep on assuming the opposite, while attempting to do even more of what we did in the past when in fact, it stopped working awhile ago.
Our grandparents were probably poor and miserable. But they made a little bit of money here and there, and all of a sudden their happiness level soared. But they had probably never gotten rich enough to the point of experiencing diminishing returns. They impose the “more is better” belief onto the next generations because they assumed that whatever worked for them will continue to work for generations to come.
Speaking of generations, it’s almost a rule of thumb in our culture that the next generation must have more than the last. It’s only reasonable to assume that our children will want to make more money and consume more, and to be more wasteful, fatter, and thus more miserable and isolated than we are.
Let’s say I work 80 hours a week to acquire and sustain the status symbols I think I need. I commute 2 hours a day just to get to work. Ironically, as hard as I work for my material possessions, I barely have time for to relax in my million dollar mansion, barely watch my plasma TV, barely use my IKEA furniture, and most crucially, I barely spend time with my family.
I feel bad that I never have time for my kids. What do I do? I buy them “guilt gifts” because it’s quick and easy. Reading to my children or taking them for a walk takes too much time, so why not buy video games, toys, Ipods, and flat screen TVs instead to entertain themselves while I am away and making the big money to pay for even better and more expensive toys and gadgets to sustain and keep my kids “happy” and “fulfilled”.
As a result, my kids become lonely, depressed, and isolated from the family and the rest of the community, as they spend hours and hours alone with gadgets designed towards individualism. They turn on the TV and what do they see? They become inundated with entertainment news, commercials, advertisements, and celebrity gossip that promote materialism, individualism, consumerism and other mindless garbage. This becomes a vicious cycle: the more goods I buy my children, the more spoiled they become. The longer I have to work to pay to maintain this type of lifestyle, and the less time I spend with my children; which this leads them to become even more dependent on my “guilt gifts” to fulfill their voids, and so on.
Marketers figured out long before psychologists and sociologists that modern humans are deprived of love and sense of community. Most of the marketing strategies are designed to make us think that we can turn to these products and material goods to fulfill these needs. If you buy our clothes, you’d have more pussy. If you drink our coffee, you’d win more friends, etc. What’s more sinister is that the marketers, more than any other demographic, target their products and advertisements on children who live in the virtual world of screens. More specifically, love deprived children who are mentally abandoned by their parents.
Most of what goes on TV are commercials and televisions shows produced by corporations target children in order to brainwash them at an early age so they can become loyal to their brands for life and trap them in the cycle of pursuit from the get go. American children who are branded to the bones are submerged in brand names and the consumer market place, with as many as 300 brand names recognized and memorized by the age of 3.
Children don’t the means to money, so why are most marketers targeting little kids? Corporations and marketers know exactly what they are doing. They are very aware of the fact that parents are wimps, and that kids nowadays have more say on their parents’ consuming habits more than anything else. These spoiled kids drawn in material possessions, nag their parents until they get them whatever the hell they want.
Why do you think Ford, Target, and Bahamas Ministry of Tourism place their ads on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network?
Why do you think Mcdonalds designs and marketing their food and services in ways that appeal to children? (The happy meal, Disney toys, and the ever so friendly Ronald Mcdonald and his friends).
Once you are hooked as child, you are hooked for life. You become a brand slave to Mcdonald, as the childhood memories brought on by the smells of fast food is too overwhelmingly nostalgic to resist. Plus, if you can get a child to crave Mcdonald’s, (since he doesn’t have the means to buy the foods), he will have to drag his whole family with him, which means that Mcdonald’s make money off of the entire family.
Children whose consumer desires are now considered a part of their nature, will have their say and get their way when it comes to convincing and influencing their parents to buy them not just mere clothes and toys, but Hummers and BMWs and beach houses they see on Cartoon Networks and MTV cribs, which again, leads the parents to work even longer hours in order to afford their desires.
Living in the world of consumerism, kids today are shopping more, and playing less.
They are increasingly suffering from mental and emotional health problems. Kids have more gadgets than ever, but suicide rates have gone up. Eventually, kids of future generations will grow up and become even more miserable, lonely, and money hungry than the previous generations, as they are likely to put more emphasis on individualism and materialism rather than community, kinship and love.
The average debt for Americans is $4000 – a 300 percent increase in the last 10 years, which also correlates with a 10-fold increase in depression across generations.
If you examine the kind of products marketers trying to sell and their specific agendas, it’s obvious that marketers and corporations are deliberately matching products with an innate human need to master and win over others and competitors with power.
Toys, board games and video games that are advertised for children almost always have the themes of success and mastery, where winning and achieving status and money are the keys to happiness. TV commercials displayed on children’s networks depict children in suits and ties – playing the role of a child CEO, competing against other children, and celebrating as they come out on top.
So you see, we are screwed up because as soon as we are “thrown” into this world, we are made to believe that having more money to consume more stuff is the only thing that matters.
But the majority of the factors that contribute to human happiness are non-materialistic. Health, a good marriage, good friends, and a good family life seem to be much better predictors of happiness than wealth.
Many people reminisce and feel nostalgic when they reflect back upon the good old times in college and calling the 4 years of college the “best years of their lives”. College kids in general are happier because when you are in college, you are almost forced to be social. Your life is constantly bombarded with activities and different people. The sense of community is intense; people are living on top, next to, inside and outside of each other.
I think that happiness should be spread out across time. Most people sit around and wait for the “big moment”, or that “big break” to keep them happy for the rest of their lives.
But it’s not the big rewards in life that makes us happy, but small, and frequent ones. A little bit of reward here and there serves us better than one large reward. We are better off making $100,000 every year for 10 years than making $1,000,000 in one year.
Human beings are equipped with what one might called a “psychological immune system” – an unconscious cognitive process system that helps them change and re-adjust their views of the world, so they can feel better about the world in which they live in.
After 6 months, people who become paralyzed return back to their level of happiness 5 months prior the accident, and are no more happier/miserable than people who won the lottery after the same amount of time has passed.
So if you already making enough money to get by, find what makes you happy – whether it’s having a lot of sex, drinking beer and watching football, going to the gym… and do a lot of it, but in small frequent portions; but the most important part is – share these moments with other human beings.
Happiness is the reward of being able to identify with members of your family and respective social groups. It is the happiness that comes from the ending of separation, isolation, and conflict. It is the happiness of the sense of unification, of feeling at one within the collective group to which you belong.