Money can buy you (11 minutes of) happiness

It is widely believed that people spend money to decrease pain and increase pleasure. But the answer to the age-old question isn’t so simple – unless, of course, you’re Jeff Bezos.

In mid-2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos headed into space with three other people in a rocket named “New Shepard.” Eleven minutes later, the group returned to Earth, having seen the “pale blue dot” through the largest set of windows flown in space. Bezos emerged with a cowboy hat on his head, and when asked for his reaction afterwards, he exclaimed, “Oh my god!”

For a man whose fortune is worth around $265 billion, it seems like money has bought Bezos happiness – every 11 minutes. But is the answer to the age-old question the same for everyone? A study conducted in the United States in 2010 examined two main components of what psychologists call “subjective well-being”: daily experiences of joy, fascination or anxiety, for example, and their reflections on their lives. in general. This reported that as Americans earned more money, their life satisfaction increased, but their day-to-day happiness plateaued once their annual income reached US$75,000. A decade later, another study apparently found the opposite – life satisfaction increased at all income levels, but Americans’ daily well-being continued to increase even past the $75,000 mark.

“With many psychological findings, one study that challenges another does not necessarily mean a complete reversal of what we believe to be true,” says Amanda Wallis, research manager at Umbrella Wellbeing, a specialist health services provider. mental health and wellness for the workplace. in Aotearoa. But the latest science supports the idea that people spend money to decrease pain and increase pleasure. There are, however, some fundamentals: the ability to hold a roof over one’s head, put food on the table, care for whānau and friends, and connect socially with others, and the concern to meet these obligations week after week, are “basic psychological needs and human rights, you might say,” she says.

Having or lacking money can also make it easier or harder for people to feel in control of the direction of their lives – an idea supported by findings from the 2021 Money Happiness Study. August 2020, the latest installment of a long-running study of the health of young New Zealanders found that symptoms of depression and rates of suicide attempts were generally higher among people living in low-income communities, according to the Youth19 survey. Additionally, a quarter of nearly 8,000 high school students said depressive symptoms affected their daily lives – a rate that has almost doubled since 2012. The deterioration in mental health cannot be explained by one theory alone, have the authors said, but among the many factors at play were young people’s future worries like employment and housing. At the same time, the average income of 15-34 year olds has increased last two decades; people aged 30 to 34 earn up to $5,000 more than the median for all age groups. By comparing, three out of five Australian teenagers in 2020 reported feeling satisfied with their lives as they earn less while the incomes of others continue to increase.

Gaynor Parkin, CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing, and Amanda Wallis, Head of Research (Photos: Supplied)

The human tendency to compare one’s position in life to another suggests that people are never satisfied with what they have – a theory that psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”. Emotional peaks experienced during major life events, such as winning the lottery, losing a loved one, or flying off into space, or the pursuit of pleasure and lingering pain, do not persist over time . Instead, people’s happiness tends to flatten out after each explosion.

For young people, they grow up seeing that having a well-paying job and owning a home are markers of success. And as they make more money, they tend to befriend other high earners, which earns them even more. It’s a very Western model of happiness, says Gaynor Parkin, founder of Umbrella Wellbeing, who wonders if it’s helpful. “Is it better to change the subject and say ‘how else can you get happiness, meaning and purpose in different ways?'”

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and deepened the gap between the rich and everyone else. More than 160 million people have been forced into poverty and the incomes of 99% of people have fallen, according to Oxfam. And the fortunes of the world’s 10 richest men – including Bezos – have more than doubled to $2.3 trillion. In addition, rising inflation makes goods and services more expensive and lowers the value of wages and salaries.

Parkin describes the pandemic’s effect on the wealth gap as “hideous.” Of course, some of the super-rich have asked governments around the world tax them to help bridge inequalities and fund government responses to Covid. But in the case of Elon Musk, Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg becoming incredibly wealthier, “it made me feel a little sick. It’s so not right,” she says. “In any decent society, we have to give priority to everyone who has had enough” – only then can whānau and individuals seek to define happiness, not just for themselves but for their communities.

Both men agree that money is best viewed as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. People who earn more have more or even better options, while those with lower incomes can still spend what they earn on what interests them. But Wallis acknowledges that these situations go beyond the day-to-day struggle that some people simply have to try to make ends meet. “I’m careful not to say ‘be grateful’,” she says. “This is banal advice for people who are struggling to survive because, in this case, money can be the solution to feeling better.”

So, can money buy happiness? “It’s possible, but it will probably be very fleeting,” Parkin says, before wondering if the Amazon founder is really happy. Bezos’ journey into space was “probably pretty exciting, but I bet if we zapped into his world and asked ‘are you happy? “, I don’t know if he would say he is. He might say “I need a bigger jet”.


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