An enduring paradox in the history of humanity is that although the rich are significantly happier than the poor within any country at any moment, average happiness levels change very little as people’s incomes rise in tandem over time. The question of happiness is central to our lifestyles, religions and societies. It can be argued, in fact, that all that we do is ultimately for the conquest and increase of happiness.
Happiness is also a central tenet of the science of economics: the measurement of changes of income levels vis-a-vis changes in levels of happiness have been interpreted to mean that happiness depends on relative rather than absolute income. However, another interpretation is true, that is gains in happiness that might have been expected to result from growth in absolute income have not materialized because of the ways in which people in affluent societies have generally spent their incomes.
Considerable evidence suggests that if we use an increase in our incomes, as many of us do, simply to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars, then we do not end up any happier than before. But if we use an increase in our incomes to buy more of certain inconspicuous goods – such as freedom from a long commute or a stressful job – then the evidence paints a very different picture. The less we spend on conspicuous consumption goods, the better we can afford to alleviate congestion; and the more time we can devote to family and friends, to exercise, sleep, travel, and other restorative activities. On the best available evidence, reallocating our time and money in these and similar ways would result in healthier, longer- and happier-lives.
A case in point is Japan, which was a very poor country in 1960. Between then and the late 1980s, its per capita income rose almost fourfold, placing it among the highest in the industrialized world. Yet the average happiness level reported by the Japanese was no higher in 1987 than in 1960.They 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. The same pattern consistently shows up in other countries as well, and that’s a puzzle for economists. If getting more income doesn’t make people happier, why do they go to such lengths to get more income?
It turns out that if we measure the income-happiness relationship in another way, we get just what the economists suspected all along. When we plot average happiness versus average income for clusters of people in a given country at a given time, we see that rich people are in fact much happier than poor people. The evidence thus suggests that if income affects happiness, it is relative, not absolute, income that matters. Some social scientists who have pondered the significance of these patterns have concluded that, at least for people in the world’s richest countries, no useful purpose is served by further accumulations of wealth. On its face, this should be a surprising conclusion, since there are so many seemingly useful things that having additional wealth would enable us to do. There is indeed independent evidence that having more wealth would be a good thing, provided it were spent in certain ways. The key insight supported by this evidence is that even though we appear to adapt quickly to across-the-board increases in our stocks of most material goods, there are specific categories in which our capacity to adapt is more limited. Additional spending in these categories appears to have the greatest capacity to produce significant improvements in well-being.
The human capacity to adapt to dramatic changes in life circumstances is impressive. We adapt swiftly to losses as well as to gains. Ads for the Provincial Lottery show participants fantasizing about how their lives would change if they won. People who actually win the lottery typically report the anticipated rush of euphoria in the weeks after their good fortune. Follow-up studies done after several years, however, indicate that these people are often no happier – and indeed, are in some ways less happy – than before. In short, our extraordinary powers of adaptation appear to help explain why absolute living standards simply may not matter much once we escape the physical deprivations of abject poverty. This interpretation is consistent with the impressions of people who have lived or traveled extensively abroad, who report that the struggle to get ahead seems to play out with much the same psychological effects in rich societies as in those with more modest levels of wealth.
So, therefore, the economic answer to the question as to whether money buys happiness must be in the negative. The evidence described earlier suggests that the satisfaction provided by many conspicuous forms of consumption is more context sensitive than the satisfaction provided by many less conspicuous forms of consumption. If so, this would help explain why the absolute income and consumption increases of recent decades have failed to translate into corresponding increases in measured well-being.