November 10, 2007

Consuming Happiness

author_karenBy Karen Sternheimer

What makes you happy? Do you think having more money, getting a fancy new car, or finding the perfect mate will do it?

It turns out, many of the things we focus on as sources of happiness really don’t leave us satisfied for very long.


A few years back, economist Richard Easterlin’s paper, "The Economics of Happiness," garnered national attention for its rather interesting findings. It seems that some of the things we think will make us happy actually have little effect on our sense of well-being.

You are no doubt familiar with the cliché that “money can’t buy happiness.” Yet so many of us presume that if we just had a little more money (according to Easterlin’s research, 20% more) we would be happier. Maybe we could buy more, pay off some bills, and feel less stressed about money.

But Easterlin found that this just isn’t the case. In fact, he says many of us buy into the “money illusion”, which guides how we spend our time as we focus on trying to get more money. Of course, this is a very American pursuit: our capitalist economy is based on the constant striving for more. 

I may recognize this, but I certainly am guilty of the money illusion myself. Wouldn’t winning the lottery make me happy? (I plan on getting a ticket tonight, although as someone who occasionally teaches statistics I know it is a long shot—or a tax on the “mathematically illiterate”, as a bumper sticker once reminded me). Getting a check in the mail is always exciting, but the thrill is typically short-lived. I can say this, though: not having enough money for basic survival can certainly create unhappiness.

What we fail to realize, Easterlin says, is that as our incomes rise, so does our spending. Plus, when we move up economically, we compare ourselves to a whole new group of people, who probably have way more money than we do. And since we invest so much energy into making more money, Easterlin argues that we shortchange things that do bring happiness: health and family.

Or do they? A recent British survey found that nearly one in four respondents regretted clip_image004marrying their spouse. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, argues that married couples become less satisfied with marriage over time. He also suggests that clip_image006having children really doesn't make people happy on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps in the long run they do, and of course this doesn’t mean people don’t love their children. But having kids isn’t necessarily associated with being happy.

According to other studies, discussed in a recent New York Times article, women report being less happy than they did in the past. This is the case whether they are married or not, stay home with their children or work in the paid labor force full-time. (Interestingly, the only exception is within African-American women, who report being happier. The only explanation the authors offer is that gains from the civil rights movement have increased quality of life for both black women and men). 

According to a paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania:

By many measures the progress of women over recent decades has been extraordinary: the gender wage gap has closed; educational attainment has risen and is surpassing that of men in recent cohorts; women have gained an unprecedented level of control over fertility; technological change in the form of new domestic appliances has freed women from domestic drudgery; and women’s freedoms within both the family and market sphere have expanded.

All of these changes are very positive. Yet the reality remains that women are still largely responsible for caring for children and clip_image008family, and for most household chores as well. As economist Alan B. Krueger of Princeton found, while men are reducing their time spent in work-related activities, women are increasing theirs. 

In order to break through that glass ceiling of success at work, many women feel pressure to demonstrate their commitment to their careers by devoting more and more time to them. Plus, things like BlackBerrys enable us to be constantly plugged into the office, even when we are with family, presumably taking care of things there.

Happiness may seem very complicated at this point. If the things we often think will make us happy don’t, and if what we are often encouraged to strive for--like being in a relationship, getting married, having kids, and making lots of money--aren’t guaranteed to bring happiness, what does?

We might believe that external events, accomplishments, and other people will bring happiness to ourclip_image010 lives, like a package that arrives on your doorstep. Of course we are encouraged to keep thinking this, so we continue to buy things and keep our consumer-based economy going. (Isn’t it odd that so much of the research on happiness has been done by economists?)

You might have heard of the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff; if you ask me, happiness is taking delight in the small stuff and counting our blessings. With apologies to the Declaration of Independence, happiness isn’t something you pursue. Just as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz learned in her pursuit of things to help her find her way home, it’s within us all along. We just need to stop looking outside of ourselves long enough to find it.


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I like your site. I've started one called "last supper sociology" which studies what matters most to people when there are no more days left. I'm trying to get people from all over the world to take part. Please read my blog and take part if you so choose. I would greatly appreciate it.

Happiness comes to them who opens their door for small treats that life provides to them. So be happy and live longer!
comes to them who opens their door for small treats that life provides to them. So be happy and live longer!

I'm working on not priotritising non-financial things to my happiness. Now my happiness priority is family.

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