Friday, July 2, 2010

Money and Happiness

"I don't care too much for money, cause money can't buy me love."
-The Beatles, 1964

While money may not be able to buy you love,
a new survey reveals that money can buy happiness—or at least perceived happiness.  Income is strongly correlated to life evaluation, or the likelihood that people will say that they are satisfied with their lives overall.  Yet the survey also found that "positive feelings" have little to do with money, but instead relate to social relationships.

Called the "first representative sample of planet Earth," the survey included over 136,000 people on earth and was designed to be nationally representative and represent about 96 percent of the world's population.  The sheer size of the survey is incredible.  But what is truly remarkable is the similarity of responses from respondents; happiness seems to have similar causes for people living in densely urban areas, sparsely populated rural areas, or anywhere in between.

Researchers were surprised to find that life satisfaction and emotional well-being are very separate measures of happiness.  When evaluating their own personal life satisfaction, people from every background had a nearly universal conception of "the good life" that involved abundant material possessions and economic security.  Yet money had a very weak connection to "feeling good" in everyday life.  Positive feelings were the result of respect, autonomy, social support, and personal fulfillment.

Social contributions to emotional well-being seem like an obvious reason why Costa Ricans are considered the happiest people on Earth.  While we have achieved tremendous economic wealth (although the wealth is not necessarily distributed justly), Americans are unhappy compared to people in many other countries.  We rank 19th in "social prosperity," 16th in "closest to an ideal life," and 26th in "positive feelings."

How do we improve? Well, perhaps if our American society focused on strengthening our social connections instead of our GDP, we would find our way to sustainable happiness.  The emerging field of
social network analysis may help us to realize the importance of social networks.  We are all embedded in these human "super-organisms" that efficiently distribute emotions, diseases, and other social "goods" through person to person contact.  If we took more time to care for our social networks and consciously tried to use them for good and to achieve greater happiness, I think we would be well on our way to finding sustainable happiness.

The funny thing is, as
Colin Beavan likes to say, what is good for us is also good for the planet.  A lifestyle focused more on social benefits and emotional well-being creates a much smaller environmental impact than a lifestyle focused mainly on consumption and material possessions.

The real question is how make people see that
eudaimonian ethics are much more valuable than neoclassical economics.  It certainly won't be easy.  But the beauty of human social networks is that they amplify whatever one person does.  So even if one person changes his or her values, that decision will have larger effects on society.  My dream is to harness the power of social networks to amplify positive personal change and promote a broad social transformation towards a happier, more sustainable world. 

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