Thursday, August 15, 2013

Money and happiness

It is quite well established that money does not buy happiness. (In this post where many people give their views on how to attain happiness, there is hardly any mention of wealth.) The marginal utility of money quickly diminishes once you are above the poverty level but the hedonic treadmill ensures that you keep wanting more. But you can always find someone richer and feel  miserable. I saw some quotes in How the Mind Works which show comparison with another person influencing happiness:
But O! how bitter a thing it is to look into  happiness through another man's eyes! - William Shakespeare, As You Like It 
Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others. - Ambrose Bierce
It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail. Gore Vidal
When does a hunchback rejoice? When he sees one with a larger hump. - Yiddish saying
From the book:
Research on the psychology of happiness has borne out the curmudgeons. Kahneman and Twersky give an everyday example. You open your paycheck and are delighted to find you have been given a five percent raise - until you learn that your co-workers have been given a ten percent raise.
People in different classes and countries are often content with their lot until they compare themselves to the more affluent. The amount of violence in a society is more closely related to its inequality than to its poverty. In the second half of the twentieth century, the discontent of the Third World, and later the Second, have been attributed  to their glimpses through the mass media of the First.

Within an industrialised country, money buys only a little happiness: the correlation between wealth and satisfaction is positive but small. Lottery winners, after their  jolt of happiness has subsided, return to their former emotional state. On the brighter side, so do people who have suffered terrible loses, such as paraplegics and survivors of the holocaust .
These findings do not necessarily contradict the singer Sofie Tucker when she said, 'I have been poor and I have been rich. Rich is better. 'In India and  Bangladesh, wealth predicts happiness much better than it does in the West. Among twenty-four Western European and American nations, the higher the gross national product per capita, the happier the citizens (though there are many explanations). Myers and Diener point out that wealth is like health: not having it makes you miserable, but having it does not guarantee happiness. 
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, there is a description of a very old Ursula: the impenetrable solitude of decrepitude she had such clairvoyance as she examined the most insignificant happenings in the family that for the first time she saw clearly the truths that her busy life in former times had prevented her from seeing.
Similarly, in in my "solitude of decrepitude", I noticed something: The general rule that we value less that which we have in abundance seems to broken in the case of money. Many very rich people seem to be freaked out about money and many super rich seem to use wealth as a means of 'keeping score'. These folks have all the money in the world but are not free from worries. (Moving away from individuals, corporations go through complicated loops to increase their bottom line.) I am reminded of  Tolstoy's short story, How Much Land Does a Man Need?

 In my house, compared to everybody else, I am the least concerned about money even though I have nothing in my name (for the simple reason that I cannot sign). Would this have been the case if I had not suffered a  stroke and had a few crores in my bank account? It is highly unlikely. What Alain de Button calls 'status anxiety' in this talk would have ensured that there will be no escape from the hedonic treadmill. I have noticed quite a few people change slowly for the worse, like the picture of Dorian Grey, as they became richer and status anxiety stated to take its toll.

'Money, like vodka, can play queer tricks with a man', said Chekhov in his short story, Gooseberries. I heard a news item that the application for gun licences in some city in India had shown a quantum jump (why does quantum jump mean 'big jump' when a quantum is an infinitesimal quantity?) because the nouvoue riche regard owning a gun as a status symbol!

PS: Here is an interesting talk by Daniel Pink about money and productivity.

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