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Searching for Happiness

Money Can’t Buy it All

NEW YORK, JULY 8, 2006 ( Recent research on the age-old search for happiness is confirming the opinion that material wealth alone does not bring lasting satisfaction.

A recent article in the Science journal asserted that it’s illusory to think high income brings automatic happiness.

On July 3, the Washington Post reported on the Science study in which researchers concluded that people with above-average income are barely happier than others, and they tend to be more tense.

“People grossly exaggerate the impact that higher incomes would have on their subjective well-being,” said Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, and one of the authors of the study.

According to the Post, an abundance of data over the last years shows that once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 a year, more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction.

Just a few days previously, researchers published a study showing Iceland to be the country with the happiest people, followed by Australia.

Information on the study, by economists Andrew Leigh, of the Australian National University, and Justin Wolfers, of Wharton University in Pennsylvania, was published in an Australian newspaper, the Adelaide Advertiser, on June 28.

Leigh said that while research shows that most developed nations generally enjoy a high level of happiness, surveys also showed that people in some relatively poor developing countries were happier than those of the developed world. Mexicans and Nigerians, for example, score well on happiness in spite of the lower incomes in these nations.

More information on the subject comes from Scotland, where researchers from Aberdeen University concluded that job satisfaction is the key to personal happiness.

However, in the June 30 report in the Scotsman, lead researcher Ioannis Theodossiou said that job satisfaction does not exclusively depend on wages, though this does have an important role. Other factors such as job security and control over working hours also play an important role in determining satisfaction, and therefore personal happiness.

The material temptation

An in-depth look at the relationship between material wealth and happiness came in a recently-published book entitled, “The Challenge of Affluence” (Oxford University Press). Written by Avner Offer, professor of economic history at Oxford University, the book examines the experience of Britain and the United States since 1950.

In this period, Offer observes, Americans and Britons have come to enjoy unprecedented material abundance. Since the 1970s, however, self-reported levels of happiness have languished or even declined, so the rise in incomes since then has done little or nothing to improve the sense of well-being. Along with this, there are numerous social and personal problems: family breakdown; addictions; crime; economic insecurity; and declining trust.

Liberal societies hold out the promise that every person can choose their own way to self-fulfillment. The free society and the free market give the individual conditions for pursuing wealth and making choices. But choice is also fallible, not always consistent and, moreover, achieving more remote objectives requires a high level of commitment.

Therefore, exercising choice requires self-control and prudence, qualities increasingly uncommon in affluent societies. In fact, competitive market societies favor novelty and innovation, and this undermines conventions, habits and institutions.

Offer argues that a market system also tends to promote short-term rewards, individualism and hedonism. This undermines the commitment needed to achieve more satisfying longer-term rewards that are more difficult to obtain, but more fulfilling.

Offer believes that another factor undermining our happiness is relative income inequality. In both Britain and the United States inequality has worsened in recent years and this is a major factor in explaining people’s lack of satisfaction with their situation. People who enjoy rising incomes, but see themselves falling behind others who are enjoying even greater progress, do not derive happiness from their improved situation.

Love, marriage and the family is another area where failures have damaged our happiness. A combination of contraception, no-fault divorce, more cohabitation and higher levels of childbirth out of wedlock have weakened marriage. A rise in explicit sexuality and in sexual relationships outside of marriage has also weakened the capacity for love and commitment within the marriage bond.

Marriage, Offer notes, confers important benefits: physical and mental health; longer life; happiness; along with numerous benefits for children. The proportion of married people has declined, meaning that about one adult in seven does not enjoy the protection and benefits of marriage. So while proponents of changes in marriage and the family argue its benefits of more freedom and space for “self-fulfillment,” the costs for many have been high.

Offer does, however, stipulate that economic growth is not something bad. It should not, however, be the number one priority and we need to treat the claims of supposed benefits resulting from growth with skepticism.

In societies that are already wealthy, further efforts to raise economic growth need to be evaluated along with the costs this will impose. A rediscovery of the virtues of moderation and self-restraint could well benefit society. This led Offer to conclude that well-being depends on how well we understand ourselves and not just having more.

Understanding happiness

Another view on happiness came in an article published in the Italian Catholic magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica. Writing in the May 20 issue, Jesuit Father Gianpaolo Salivini noted that many Italians, in spite of living in a rich country, are not satisfied with their lives.

Aristotle, Father Salvini observed, considered that it was not possible to be happy without also being virtuous. More modern writers, such as Nobel prize economist Amartya Sen, consider that happiness consists not only in material possessions, but in a series of goods and ends that give a sense of fulfillment to life.

Father Salvini also drew attention to the importance of personal relationships in the attainment of happiness. This includes friendships, family and social relations.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the New Testament beatitudes respond to our natural desire for happiness. “This desire is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it.” (No. 1718)

Another clue to explaining our desire for happiness is the Christian virtue of hope. God has placed an aspiration to happiness in every person’s heart and hope responds to this, explains number 1818 of the Catechism. The purification of our aspirations by means of the virtue of hope not only helps us avoid discouragement, but also preserves us from selfishness and leads us to a happiness that flows from charity.

In terms of material goods and happiness, the Catechism reminds the faithful of the words of Jesus who exhorted the disciples to renounce everything for his sake and that of the Gospel (Lk 14:33).

In a series of numbers (2544-47), the Catechism develops the theme of poverty of the heart, reminding Christians of how Jesus motivated his followers to renounce worldly riches and to place our trust in God.

True happiness does not come from riches, fame or power, explains No. 1723 of the Catechism. These things are beneficial, but lasting happiness only comes from God, the source of every good and all love.

A lesson not always easy to remember.

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