Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Does Money Buy Happiness?

Thomas Riggins

Money does NOT buy happiness, according to a recent scientific study in Science Daily online for 12-14-10 ["Over Long Haul, Money Doesn't Buy Happiness"]. Well, you could have fooled me. This study comes from "the founder of the field of happiness studies" Richard Easterlin and he wants to demonstrate that countries having a higher rate of economic growth don't have a greater increase in happiness.

A longterm study of 37 countries was undertaken and the researchers found that "the sense of well being" does not go up in a country with the growth of income. This conclusion is somewhat ambiguous as the researchers seem to be talking about the "happiness" of countries when only individual people are capable of happiness.

This paper contradicts previous findings based on short term studies which did show a positive correlation between increased national income and the increase of happiness (well being). Easterlin's negative finding is based on a long term (an average of 22 years) investigation of the relationship. The USC University Professor stated: "This article rebuts recent claims that there is a positive long-term relationship between happiness and income, when in fact, the relationship is nil."

"Nil" is probably not the right word. There is a short term relationship which is positive. Can anyone look at the suffering in Haiti due to the neglect and exploitation of its population by the industrialized countries, or the people of the southern Sudan living on less than 75 cents a day per person, and seriously believe their sense of "well-being" would not be improved if they were to live above the level of destitution?

Easterlin knows this for he also says, "Simply stated, the happiness-income paradox [named for him the Easterlin Paradox] is this: at a point in time both among and within countries, happiness and income are positively related. But, over time, happiness does not increase when a country's income increases." There may be a simple explanation for this "paradox." People's happiness increases when their country begins to accumulate enough wealth to lift the majority out of abject poverty. Past that threshold capitalist accumulation kicks in and as wealth increases it is siphoned off as surplus value by the capitalist class and does not reach the masses. At this stage only a tiny minority's well-being is affected by the increase in national wealth.

We should study the relation between the increase of the well-being of the different classes within a country--- capitalists, workers, peasants. The overall wealth of a country could increase and not correlate with an increase of a sense of well-being in the overall population due to a maldistribution of the wealth to a tiny upper crust.

"With incomes rising so rapidly in [certain] countries, it seems extraordinary that no surveys register the marked improvement in subjective well-being that mainstream economists and policy makers worldwide expect to find," Esterlin pointed out. He says that, e.g., in Chile, China, and South Korea per capita income has doubled yet there is no statistically significant indication of an increase in subjective well-being. One of the reasons for this may be due to what I explained above. Per capita income having doubled does NOT mean everyone is getting twice as much as they used to get.

"Where does this leave us?" Easterlin asks. "If economic growth is not the main route to greater happiness, what is? We may need to focus policy more directly on urgent personal concerns relating to things such as health and family live, rather than on the mere escalation of material goods."

Maybe we should focus on the fair and equal distribution of the material wealth created in the society on the basis of from each according to their ability to each according to their labor as a starting point. Wealth is also more than just material goods accumulated for your own satisfaction.

1 comment:

David said...

Hi Thomas Riggins, I had a copy of a book review in which you had commented on Freeman's, "The Closing of The Western Mind." You had referred to an exchange between Symmachus and St. Ambrose. Coming upon the quote fresh, I looked up your blog and discovered your most recent statement on income inequality.
I must refer you to the "Spirit Level" (British for Carpenter's level) which proves, according to a review: "modern inequality causes stress and social problems, not just among the very poor, but at all levels of society. That’s just what Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett find in their new book, The Spirit Level Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger."
I'm passing this on, since it seems relevant to your latest blog post and as thanks for mentioning the exchange between Symmachus and Ambrose and other commentary on Freeman's book.
David Lucier, Santa Cruz, CA