When Material Wealth Is Not Enough

Modern World Richer, But Not Happier

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LONDON, JUNE 18, 2005 (Zenit.org).- As Western societies have become richer in material terms, people have become no happier. This is the argument made by British economist Richard Layard in his book «Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,» published this year by Allen Lane.

Whether in the United States, Britain or Japan, people on average are no happier than they were 50 years, says Layard. And this comes despite the fact that average incomes have more than doubled, holidays are more numerous, workweeks are shorter, and people live longer and have better health, the author contends. He cites abundant data to back up his claims.

The book starts by recalling the figure of Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century British philosopher noted for his idea that the best society is the one that produces the greatest amount of happiness. Layard observes that Bentham’s ideas had great influence, but that over time the search for happiness often degenerated into rampant individualism. As a remedy Layard argues that we need to renew the concept of the search for happiness by adding to it the idea of the common good, thus avoiding excessive individualism.

Layard’s espousal of a Benthamite-type of happiness, and his emphasis on emotional or psychological feelings, lacks a profound moral dimension. Yet, the book’s analysis of how modern, materialistic society has failed to satisfy people’s aspirations is useful.

More than bread alone

Layard, who has taught at the London School of Economics, explains that according to economic theory selfish behavior combined with perfectly free markets will lead to the greatest happiness as it will lead to the best possible distribution of wants and resources. «This view of national happiness is the one that dominated the thinking and pronouncements of leaders of Western governments,» he notes.

People certainly deplore abject poverty, Layard acknowledges. But once basic needs are met, there is more to life than material prosperity, he argues. People also want other things, such as security and the capacity to trust others.

In fact, it is in poor countries that data show a positive relation between greater wealth and increased happiness. Extra income is a welcome improvement for people who are truly poor, Layard says.

In better-off nations the situation is different. Within the richest, and even the poorest, quarters of the U.S. population, for instance, levels of happiness have not changed over the last few decades, in spite of notable increases in income for both groups, Layard finds. In Europe, where studies on happiness began only in 1975, there is a slight upward trend in happiness in some countries, but declines in others. Overall, the increase in happiness is small compared to the changes in income levels.

To those who are skeptical of opinion surveys, Layard responds by citing studies that have followed the same people over a lengthy period of time. The conclusion is the same: They became no happier even though they grew much richer.

A treadmill

Layard also argues that the lack of a correlation between riches and happiness is shown in data related to clinical depression and alcoholism. Clinical depression — that is, conditions that are well-defined and not just feeling miserable for a short time — has increased in past decades in the United States. And alcoholism is also on the rise, both in the United States and Europe. The incidence of suicide, particularly among the young, has also increased in a number of Western nations in recent years.

The book explores a number of factors behind the lack of increased happiness. We constantly compare our economic well-being to others, notes Layard, so economic growth that affects all equally may leave us without any increased contentment. Then there is what he terms the «hedonic treadmill,» whereby we become accustomed to new possessions and need even more to feel contented.

So if economic factors are not the main determinant of our happiness, what does it depend on? Layard notes a number of influences in childhood, including the importance of united families. Many studies, he says, show that children suffer when their parents divorce.

The author further cites evidence that a combination of factors influence our happiness in adult life. Our financial situation plays a part. Other important elements include work environment, the quality of family relationships and friendships, and the state of health. As well, the amount of personal freedom and the sort of personal values we have are key factors. Regarding this last point, studies show that people who believe in God are happier.

Too much choice

A similar analysis of the shortcomings of material prosperity was made in a book published by Ecco last year, «The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.» The author, Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, reflected on the dilemma of modern consumers faced with a bewildering variety of choices.

At his local supermarket, Schwartz found no fewer than 85 varieties of crackers to choose from. The store also stocked 285 varieties of cookies (including 21 with chocolate chips), 85 types of juice and 75 kinds of iced tea. And, not to be outdone, the cosmetics section carried 116 types of skin cream and 360 types of shampoo.

Academia is no stranger to choice, either. Not so many years ago the introductory years of college followed a well-defined course of obligatory studies, with relatively few options. Today, however, hundreds of options and combinations are possible. Princeton University offers no fewer than 350 courses to satisfy the general education requirements.

Schwartz notes that freedom and autonomy are an important part of our well-being. But the constant need to choose — whether it be career options, places to live or products to buy — also brings with it stress. And, like Layard, he notes that increased wealth and more options do not necessarily bring greater happiness.

The human heart

Social analysis aside, religion also has something to say about happiness. People have a natural desire for happiness, notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in No. 1718. But this desire is of divine origin and God alone can fulfill it. «The Beatitudes reveal the goal of human existence, the ultimate end of human acts: God calls us to his own beatitude» (No. 1719).

And many of the problems of the «hedonic treadmill» variety are well known to Christians under the more traditional term of the capital vices, such as envy and avarice (No. 1866).

Further on, the Catechism recalls how Christ’s followers are warned against an overdue adherence to material riches (Nos. 2544-2547). A desire for true happiness, that is, in God, «frees man from his immoderate attachment to the goods of this world so that he can find his fulfillment in the vision and beatitude of God» (No. 2548). «Blessed are the poor in spirit» remains a principle valid for the achievement of happiness, in this world and the next.

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