I am somewhat short of time and this is a topic that really needs some in-depth commentary to do it justice. While I fully intend to return to this over the next few days, please think of this as a mini-meme: If you read this post please have a think about blogging your opinions on the articles below. If you dont want to, that’s OK, as I said, I will address the fact that I pretty much disagree with every one of these…
Background: In light of the Credit Crisis and the environmental disaster we are bringing in on ourselves, New Scientist has put together a “Growth Issue” in which a variety of people argue we need a new social model in which economic growth is not the goal and we all adopt a fun-filled, relaxed, minimal work life.
First off the editorial: Always annoying but this sets the tone: Read it first then move on to the main feature.
The weirdest of the feature has to be the “Life in a land without growth” article. It is a hypothetical report from 2020 detailing how great life is now we have done away with economic growth. The report has a great start:
IT’S 2020, and we are a decade into a huge experiment in which we are trying to convert our country to a sustainable or “steady-state” economy. We have two guiding principles: we don’t use natural resources faster than they can be replenished by the planet, and we don’t deposit wastes faster than they can be absorbed.
but then goes massively down hill with:
In our society, scientists set the rules. They work out what levels of consumption and emission are sustainable – and if they’re not sure they work out a cautious estimate.
Hmm. Didn’t Lisa Simpson try this for Springfield? I am more than a little worried about the idea of a culture where “scientists set the rules.” From that point on, I began to disagree with most of the report and decided, if that was our society, I’d be a terrorist.
The next utopia-article that annoyed me was the “Nothing to fear from curbing growth” one. To be fair to Kate Soper, it is better written than the hypothetical report but she hits on a theme which gets my back up on a gigantic scale: The idea that the more money you have, the less happy you are.
This is monumental nonsense. As far as I can tell it was a tool used to keep the working poor in their place by convincing them that aspiring to great-wealth would be bad for them. It manifests itself in our obsession with the failings of the rich and famous – every time some one wealthy checks into rehab, or complains about being depressed etc., the nonsense about money not making you happy is dragged out. Interestingly, this is something asserted more often by well off people than poor people, which makes you wonder about their motives.
Kate Soper shows how there is a mistaken transposition of survey data to draw this conclusion:
For example, rates of occupational ill-health and depression have been shown to be linked to the number of hours we work, and once a certain level of income is reached further wealth does not correlate with increased happiness.
Hours worked does not equal wealth and we have an odd conflation here.
Working 20 hours a day does not make you happy. I can testify in the court of Odin that, having done a 36 hour shift I was not even close to being happy at the end of it. I would be much, much, happier if I didn’t have to work.
That part of her claim I agree with. Working long hours is depressing.
Working long hours, however is not the same as being wealthy. In fact it is often the inverse. Poor people have to work all the hours Zeus sends to make ends meet. This makes them depressed. They are depressed because they are poor.
There is a middle ground, but it is a middle ground I will never have sympathy for. Some people are at the very low end of being well-off and, as a result, have to work insane hours. These are not actually rich people though – recent examples are the merchant bankers in the city of London, working 18 hours day to get million pound a year bonuses. Sadly, their lifestyle demands those bonuses and therefore demands those hours. If they are living in the centre of London, where a toilet costs a million pounds to rent, they best work as hard as the cleaner (who admittedly lives in a cardboard box under tower bridge). They are “wealthy” but not happy. However, they are an odd group and far from representative.
Then we get the genuinely wealthy. I suspect Bill Gates is a pretty happy person and enjoys his life. I think it would be foolish to say he was less happy than someone who was working 12 hour shifts stacking shelves in the supermarket, followed by a six hour shift waiting tables to try and keep a roof over their families head.
Going back to the article, it jumps from working long hours = depressing to saying that beyond a certain level of wealth the increase in happiness is not proportional. This left me with a huge so what.
If I am X happy with £100million, does it matter that I am only (X*2)-Y happy with £200million? Not to me. I am more happy, and that is enough. The rest of her article continues the conflation of work and wealth so I will leave it for now.
Now, as a final point, and going back to the title, I will again assert it is largely incorrect to say that money doesn’t buy happiness. For the screaming pedant it is correct because happiness is an emotion and unless the very existence of lots of (positive) numbers on your bank balance makes you happy the money isn’t doing that bit.
However, what money gives you is the ability to become happy. If you are wealthy enough to not have to go to work, you can spend quality time with your family; you can spend more time doing hobbies; you can learn new things; you can read new books; you can travel the world. There are more things that I want to do than I will ever have time to do so it is a constant battle with the clock. Money buys that wonderful thing called time. The problem is we have to give up time to work so the key for most people is finding the best balance between lots of work, and lots of time.
Being slightly scientifically oriented, I am open to having my mind changed on this topic – but I suspect any arguments will just go back and forth on issues of pedantry. What I propose instead is a simple experiment.
If you feel, like so many others, that money does not make you happy then send me £50,000. With this we can see if having less money makes you happy and if having more money makes me happy.
As this is a fixed amount and may well be below the threshold that Kate Soper was referring to there is a second experiment: I will make a note of my current happiness using any criteria you choose. Then I am given £1million and my happiness is re-assessed. Next this is increased to £10million (with another assessment) and finally a sum of £20million and a final assessment. From this we can see if the increasing sums of money show a corresponding increase in happiness.
Does that sound like a good idea? I am more than willing to take part in the experiment at a moments notice.
On the other hand, if you aren’t willing to give me all your money, don’t claim being rich doesn’t make you happy.
Footnote: I used “you” and “your” a lot, these are just generic terms. I didn’t mean you unless you are Bill Gates [or similar] and fancy the experiment. Do you?