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The Secret to Happiness

Look inside at what actually gives you joy, and the good life may be closer than you thought

David Myers
David Myers
What is the good life? The old American Dream offers an answer: It’s individually achieved affluence. It’s the indulgences promised by magazine sweepstakes: a 40-foot yacht, a deluxe motor home, a personal housekeeper. (“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it right,” proclaims a Lexus ad.) In a phrase, it’s life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness.

Does money indeed buy happiness? Few YES! readers would answer yes. But ask another question—“Would a little more money make you a little happier?—and many readers will sheepishly nod. There is, we assume, a connection between fiscal fitness and feeling fine, an assumption that feeds what Juliet Schor has called the “cycle of work and spend” working more to buy more. According to one 1990s Gallup Poll, one in two women, two in three men, and four in five people earning more than $75,000 a year say they would like to be richer.

But we delude ourselves. The good life springs less from earning one’s first million than from loving and being loved, from developing the traits that mark happy lives, from finding connection and meaningful hope in faith communities, and from experiencing “flow” in work and recreation.

Rising materialism
Materialism surged during the 1970s and 1980s, as evident in the annual UCLA/American Council on Education (ACE) survey of nearly a quarter million entering collegians. The proportion considering it “very important or essential” that they become “very well-off financially” skyrocketed from 40 to 74 percent, flip-flopping with the shrinking numbers who considered it very important or essential to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” Materialism was up, spirituality down.

What a change in values. In the recent UCLA/ACE surveys, “very well-off financially” has been the top ranked of 19 rated goals, outranking “becoming an authority in my own field,” “helping others in difficulty,” and “raising a family.” And it’s not just collegians. Asked by Roper pollsters to identify what makes “the good life,” 38 percent of Americans in 1975 and 63 percent in 1996 chose “a lot of money.”

In Luxury Fever, economist Robert Frank reports that, with more people having more money to spend, late-1990s spending on luxury goods was growing four times as fast as overall spending. Thousand-dollar-a-night suites at the Palm Beach Four Seasons Hotel were booked months ahead for weddings, as were $5000-a-night suites at Aspen. The number of America’s 100-foot yachts doubled to 5,000 compared to a decade ago, and each may cost more than $10,000 per hour of use. Cars costing more than $30,000 (in 1996 dollars) increased during the 1990s from 7 to 12 percent of vehicles sold.

Does such unsustainable consumption enable the good life? Does being well-off make for well-being? Would people—would you—be happier if you could exchange a modest lifestyle for one with a world-class home entertainment system, winter skiing from your condo along the Aspen slopes, and being wined and dined on executive class travel? Social psychology theory and research offer some clear answers.

Are rich people happier?
To a modest extent, yes, rich people are happier. Especially in poor countries, such as India, being relatively well-off does make for greater well-being. We need food, rest, shelter, and some sense of control over our lives.

But in affluent countries, the link between wealth and self-reported well-being is “surprisingly weak,” notes researcher Ronald Inglehart. Once able to afford life’s necessities, more and more money provides diminishing additional returns.

“People who go to work in their overalls and on the bus are just as happy, on the average, as those in suits who drive to work in their own Mercedes,” observes David Lykken, summarizing his own studies of happiness. Even the very rich—for example, the Forbes 100 wealthiest Americans in a 1980s survey by psychologist Ed Diener and his colleagues—are only slightly happier than average.

Over time, does our happiness rise with our affluence? A recent windfall from an inheritance, a surging economy, or a lottery win does provide a temporary jolt of joy. But as soon as one adapts to the new wealth, the euphoria subsides.

If personal happiness does not enduringly rise with our rising personal affluence, does a rising economic tide lift our collective happiness? Are we happier than in 1957, when economist John Galbraith was describing the United States as The Affluent Society?

Compared to then, today’s America is the doubly affluent society—with doubled real incomes (thanks partly to the doubling of married women’s employment) and double what money buys. Americans today own about twice as many cars per person, eat out more than twice as often, and commonly enjoy big screen color TVs, microwave ovens, home computers, air conditioning, Post-it notes, and gobs of other goodies. Materially, these are the best of times.

So, believing that it is “very important” to be very well-off financially, and having seen our affluence ratchet upward little by little over four decades, are we now happier?

We are not. Since 1957, the number of Americans who say they are “very happy” has declined slightly, from 35 to 30 percent. We are twice as rich and no happier. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate has more than doubled, and increasingly our teens and young adults are plagued by depression.

I have called this soaring wealth and shrinking spirit “the American paradox.” More than ever, we at the end of the last century were finding ourselves with big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility. We were excelling at making a living but too often failing at making a life. We celebrated our prosperity but yearned for purpose. We cherished our freedoms but longed for connection. In an age of plenty, we were feeling spiritual hunger.

These facts of life lead us to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically. In the U.S., Europe, and Japan, affluence has not purchased the good life. The conclusion startles because it challenges modern materialism: Economic growth in affluent countries has provided no apparent boost to human morale.

It is further striking that those who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower well-being, a finding that “comes through very strongly in every culture I’ve looked at,” reports psychologist Richard Ryan.

In The High Price of Materialism, Ryan’s research collaborator, Tim Kasser, concludes that those who instead strive for intimacy, personal growth, and contribution to the community enjoy a higher quality of life. This concurs with those from an earlier survey of 800 college alumni, which found that those with “Yuppie values”—those who preferred a high income and occupational success and prestige to having very close friends and a close marriage—were twice as likely as their other former classmates to describe themselves as “fairly” or “very” unhappy.

Pause a moment and think: What’s the most satisfying event that you have experienced in the last month? Psychologist Kennon Sheldon and his colleagues put that question to samples of university students. Then they asked the students to rate the extent to which 10 different needs were met by the satisfying event. What were the three emotional needs that most strongly accompanied that satisfaction? They were self-esteem, relatedness (feeling connected with others), and autonomy (feeling in control). At the bottom of the list of satisfaction-predicting factors was money and luxury.

A study by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman confirms that very happy university students are distinguished not by their money but by their “rich and satisfying close relationships.” The good life is not primarily about money and consumption.

A new American dream
If materialistic strivings do not entail the good life, then we can ask, what’s the point of luxury fever? “Why,” wondered the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” What’s the point of accumulating stacks of unplayed CD’s, closets full of seldom worn clothes, three-car garages with luxury cars—all purchased in a vain quest for an elusive joy? And what’s the point of leaving significant inherited wealth to one’s heirs, as if it could bring them happiness, rather than applying it to a hurting world?

Ronald Inglehart, a social scientist who follows world values surveys, has discerned the beginnings of a subsiding of materialism and signs of a new generation maturing with increasing concern for personal relationships, the integrity of nature, and the meaning of life (or the “search for spiritual moorings,” as George Gallup has called it).

If affluence and materialism are not major ingredients for the good life, research indicates those that are:

  • Close, supportive relationships.
    We humans have what today’s social psychologists call a deep “need to belong.” Those supported by intimate friendships or a committed marriage are much likelier to declare themselves “very happy.”

  • Faith communities.
    Connection, meaning, and deep hope are often nourished in congregations. In National Opinion Research Center surveys of 42,000 Americans since 1972, 26 percent of those rarely or never attending religious services declared themselves very happy, as did 47 percent of those attending multiple times weekly.

  • Positive traits.
    Optimism, self-esteem, and perceived control over one’s life are among the traits that mark happy experiences and happy lives. Happy people typically report feeling an “internal locus of control”—they feel empowered. When deprived of control over one’s life—an experience studied in prisoners, nursing home patients, and people living under totalitarian regimes—people suffer lower morale and worse health. Severe poverty demoralizes when it erodes people’s sense of control over their life circumstances.

  • Flow.
    Work and leisure experiences that engage one’s skills also enable the good life. Between the anxiety of being overwhelmed and stressed, and the apathy of being underwhelmed and bored, lies a zone in which people experience flow—an optimal state in which, absorbed in an activity, they lose consciousness of self and time. Flow theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found people reporting their greatest enjoyment not when mindlessly passive, but when unself-consciously absorbed in a mindful challenge. Most people are happier gardening than power-boating, talking to friends than watching TV. Low consumption recreations prove satisfying.

Sustainable joy
All this is good news. Those things that make for the genuinely good life—close relationships, a hope-filled faith, positive traits, engaging activity—are enduringly sustainable. As Jigme Singye Wangchuk, King of Bhutan, observes, “Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product.”

Fulfilling a new vision of an American dream need not romanticize poverty or destroy our market economy. But it will require our seasoning prosperity with purpose, capital with compassion, and enterprise with equity. Such a transformation in consciousness has happened before; today’s thinking about race, gender, and the environment are radically changed from a half century ago. And it could happen again.

Hope College social psychologist David Myers is author of The Pursuit of Happiness (Avon) and The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (Yale).

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