Despite what many of us would like to think (imagining that we are detached from the consumerist treadmill), money can buy you happiness – at least to a certain extent.
Anneli Knight reports on the ‘Happiness and Its Causes’ Conference that took place in Brisbane recently. Although riches won’t necessarily bring you instant happiness, ‘there is a correlation between wealth and contentment – but probably not in the way that you might think’.
A US anthropologist and psychologist from the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology, Dr Robert Biswas-Diener, says it is easy to get swept up in the notion that money is irrelevant to happiness.
”There is a tendency to romanticise people from materially simple cultures but there is a tradeoff,” he says.
”I think it would be great to be Amish but I’m also a huge fan of laser surgery if I need it. If you have a choice between Zimbabwe and Canada, take Canada.
”It’s not to say everyone in Zimbabwe is miserable but, on average, we know the vast majority of people in Denmark are doing better than virtually everyone in Togo.
”Generally, rich cities are happier. At the group level, money leads to more democracy, more gender equality, higher life expectancy, lower rates of police corruption, more green space and better infrastructure.”
However, national wealth is a different issue to an individual’s relationship with money and that is where it can get complicated.
Biswas-Diener says the issue is not with money itself but with our attitude towards money and the way we spend it.
”It’s a story people want to hear, they want to downplay the importance of money because it sounds materialistic,” he says. ”But money does buy a bit of happiness; money is important to happiness. Money is a catch-all for all the things that money buys.
”That is the caveat: desiring the things money buys is toxic to happiness. Having money is not toxic but wanting money is toxic.”
Biswas-Diener says people who say money doesn’t buy happiness might be spending their money on the wrong things and research has shown that spending money on experiences or using money for philanthropic causes brings more happiness than spending money on consumer items.
”Sometimes critics assume money will only be spent on status items like iPhones and laptops,” he says. ”I hope to make more in the future not because I want a speed boat or a Rolex but because I know my kids are going to college soon, I want to be able to take my grandkids on vacation and I want to fund a charity in Kolkata.”
Biswas-Diener says the ”money doesn’t buy you happiness” story is not exactly true and that the relationship of money to happiness is curvilinear and one that is based on the economic theory of diminishing marginal returns.
”But where does the slope really quit paying you happiness dividends?” he says. ”It’s something kind of low – it’s not $1 million. That’s not to say there is no more gain at all, it is just a levelling off. If someone makes $80,000 they will be happier than someone who makes $60,000. It’s not a huge jump in happiness, it’s incremental.”
I think these psychological and sociological insights fit with a Christian theological view: that we shouldn’t romanticise poverty (even if voluntary poverty can have an important place in the lives of those seeking to build the Kingdom); that the goods of creation are a blessing; and that common sense and social justice require us to seek these blessings for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for all those in need.
Two of the principles of Catholic social teaching are the right to private property, and the universal destination of goods. Meaning, more or less, that it is good for us to have things and even better for us to share things. It doesn’t mean that we will be unable to find happiness without material possessions; it simply means that a normal part of ordinary happiness and well-being will lie in the acquisition and use of the good things of creation – including money.