According to survey statistics happiness of wealthy people is no greater!
So what DOES make us happy?
The research findings of an international New Scientist happiness survey and other more local studies for health and happiness may surprise you!
What is happiness?
Happiness is an emotional state that indicates our satisfaction with life; a measure of how favorable we perceive the overall quality of our life to be.
Throughout human history, philosophers have considered happiness as the most fundamental motivation for all human action. It is assumed to be our ultimate goal in life – everything we do merely a means to achieve it.
Indeed, when questioned most of us would identify the quest for greater happiness as the great motivating force behind everything we do to improve our material prosperity. After all, that’s even how our governments measure what they call our ‘standard of living’: the amount of goods and services we consume. But is it the same as quality of life?
How much does material prosperity contribute to happiness anyway? The answers will surprise you.
TAKE INTERNATIONAL STUDIES ON HAPPINESS FOR EXAMPLE
Where would you say that the happiest people in the world are? In the richest countries, say Europe, Australia, the United States, Canada? …Wrong!
A 2003 World Value Survey of people in 65 nations was published in the British magazine New Scientist. The survey found that the world’s happiest countries with the most satisfied people are Puerto Rico and Mexico, and those with the most optimistic people are Nigeria and Mexico.
The results defy conventional wisdom spawned by media hype and western social conditioning that equates prosperity with happiness – how could these relatively poorer nations’ people be more content than, say, proudly prosperous Americans, whose bountiful nation scored an embarrassing 16th on the list?
As Richard Ernsberger wrote in an article to Newsweek International (July 26, 2004):
We Americans are told in our Declaration of Independence that three things are sacrosanct–“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And like fellow hedonists in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, we’ve clearly taken the message to heart.
We work hard, earn lots of money and spend gleefully on iPods, flat-screen TVs, SUVs and all sorts of expensive fripperies.
We indulge, we gratify–and therefore we expect to be the happiest
damn people on the planet. So why aren’t we?
What is this astounding result telling us about happiness? Could it be that the one thing we want most in life is the one thing we know nothing about?
Is It Material Prosperity?
Let’s first consider material prosperity as measured by each nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita: 2003 estimates showed the US with a GDP per person of $37,800. How does this compare with the world’s happiest nations? GDP per person in Puerto Rico is $16,800; in Mexico it is $9,000; in Nigeria it is a pitiful $800.
Obviously money has very little to do with happiness. What does then? Is there a magic ingredient that makes these countries the happiest in the world?
Is It Peace and Security?
Though set on a lush island paradise, the US territory of Puerto Rico suffers a high murder rate and double-digit unemployment. Materially among the world’s poorest people, Nigerians also have to contend with living in one of the world’s most corrupt countries, where government services and infrastructure has largely broken down or are unreliable, violence is rife and human life is cheap.
Is It Education and Health?
In the 2003 United Nations Human Development Indicators ranking, Nigeria was 152nd out of 175 countries, or 24th from the bottom for life expectancy, health, education, standard of living, and literacy.
So happiness is not about prosperity, peace, education, health or even life expectancy. We’ll have to dig deeper!
Is It Religion?
Perhaps having strong religious belief is a potent contributor to happiness? With a population roughly equally divided between Christians and Moslems, Nigeria has been rated as a highly religious country, with Mosques and Churches on every street corner, strong personal religious conviction and enthusiastic and rapturous worship practices. Most Nigerians say they would willingly die for their beliefs and some have. However, strong religious belief does not appear to be an essential element.
OK. So, what DO the happiest nations have in common?
There are two things the happiest nations in the world have in common and they are related:
- Strong sense of community and…
- Frequent, enthusiastic community celebration.
As noted a century ago by Emile Durkheim, the French founder of modern sociology, adversity itself encourages the formation of societal relationships and can actually promote positive feelings. Interdependence and community sharing are definite advantages to thriving amidst adversity and may explain why Nigerians who live in harsh circumstances can nonetheless experience high spirits. And like Nigerians, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans experience strong extended family ties and close-knit communities.
Community trust – the extent to which a person trusts others in their community – has certainly been identified as a key happiness factor by researchers such as David Halpern, a senior consultant for a recent British study on the politics of happiness.
Community celebration is a definite common denominator for happiness! It is a Puerto Rican propensity to celebrate everything – with 500 festivals a year the country has a lot of fun on the calendar. Nigerians and Mexicans too love to party, and dress in their best and most colorful attire to celebrate and mark every occasion with a song and dance.
Where happiness lies
Research within western culture suggests that once our basic needs for security, safety and health are met, our happiness and quality of life is impacted most significantly by the quality of our personal relationships – with ourselves, our partner, family, friends and community. Given the international findings, it’s not surprising.
But are we too busy chasing money to give our relationships the attention their importance to our happiness merits? Unfortunately yes – and we are working longer hours than ever before to earn enough to pay for the stuff that we think we need.
IS MATERIALISM A HAPPINESS BARRIER?
One Mexican quizzed by Sherry Cardinal of Critical Incident Stress Management, described the key to their happiness: “It’s because we don’t strive after possessions and we are content with the love of a good woman.”
Bad news for consumption-focused Westerners – The World Value Survey happiness researchers had to conclude from their data that consumerism is the leading suppressant of happiness.
Sherry Cardinal has validated this finding with observations from her clinical practice:
A number one stressor for Americans is consumer related pressure.
Striving after bigger, newer and better while going deeper and longer in debt keeps us fearful and awake nights.
It doesn’t do much for relationships either when jobs and careers come before love and family.
I see this every day in marriages and families torn asunder by up-side-down values. …Even psychiatry knows that the best buffers against stress are caring human (and animal) attachments.
Consequently, if you are a Westerner, chances are that in spite of your material wellbeing, you are living below your natural capacity for happiness.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow was famous for developing a stepladder theory of happiness and motivation.
Once fundamental human needs are met, the Maslow heirarchy of need theory goes, then one can progress to the satisfaction of higher needs and on up a hierarchical ladder to increasing happiness. (See diagram: Maslow Hierarchy Needs)
- Step 1: Basic biological needs
It’s very hard to be happy without the satisfaction of our basic biological requirements such as food, water and survival.
- Step 2: Security
Once these are secure, then adding adequate safety, shelter and security further boosts our well being.
- Step 3: Relationships
After that human happiness hinges on satisfying the need for fulfilling personal relationships – love, family and the feeling of belonging in whatever community you live in.
- Step 4: Respect
Being well regarded and respected within this network of relationships adds further satisfaction and happiness.
- Step 5: Life purpose
Finally, the pinnacle of happiness is reached by self-actualization – fulfilling one’s personal potential through achieving a higher purpose in life.
Though Maslow theorized that we are free to progress up the ladder once the basic satisfaction at one level has been achieved, many of us become fixated at a particular rung usually for life, feeling dissatisfied and “stuck in a rut”.
Perhaps what we are looking for in our quest to find satisfaction in material possessions is the “respect” of others. But if we do so at the expense of developing and maintaining our network of personal relationships, then happiness nevertheless eludes us.
Prosperity has not made us any happier!
Indeed, in spite of becoming significantly materially richer, studies show that Westerners are no happier than they were in the simpler days of 1950’s. It seems that once we have enough to live a decent material life, we adjust our expectations to think we “need” almost everything we now have.
Our whole Western society, education system, religions and media culture condition us from birth to pursue these things. The reality is that we are no closer to happiness than we were in the 1950’s when our standard of living was significantly less.
Escalating rates of suicide, crime, child abuse, divorce and serious health epidemics are indicators that the quality of our lives is falling. All the while we are mesmerized by marketing to conspicuously consume, and dulled into accepting that it is what life and happiness is all about.
STATISTICS HAPPINESS OF WEALTHY PEOPLE
It is the norm in our society to pursue financial goals only to find when we reach them that we are no happier. As Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute remarks of people trapped in this paradox:
Instead of wondering whether the desire for more money is the problem, they raise their threshold of desire; this is an endless cycle.
In a national Australian survey in 2002, Hamilton found that high income earners actually feel less satisfied and prosperous than low income earners! While 9% of the lowest income earners (less than $25,000 per year) were happy with what they earned and 21% reported being totally satisfied with life, only 5% of the highest income earners (more than $100,000 per year) felt prosperous, and just 13% were totally satisfied with life generally. So what’s going wrong here?
Similarly, according to US statistics, happiness of wealthy people is only slightly better than average, with income above about $20,000 US per capita, yielding at best minimal increases in happiness. Further, studies show that people who value money highly tend to be less happy than those who place highest priority on love and relationships.
So, in developed societies there is little class difference in happiness. By contrast, in poor societies those at the top of the socio- economic ladder are happier than those at the bottom.
Having enough for a basic standard of living IS important, but once we have enough to live on, the biggest happiness gains are reaped from the quality of our human relationships.
Indeed, many people are reaping greater happiness by shifting from high-paid high-pressure jobs to lower key, home-based jobs, giving them more time for friends and family.
Law of Diminishing Returns
Material success does bring happiness, but the amount of happiness gained makes only a small contribution to our feeling of wellbeing. In fact, it is subject to the law of diminishing returns: the further past the point of having a basic “enough” we go, the harder we have to work and the more we must sacrifice for ever diminishing rewards in the happiness stakes.
Dr. Michael Fordyce describes this phenomenon as the “happiness law of diminishing returns” which states that achievement in any area of life adds to happiness only up to a certain point. Concerning income, every thousand dollars you add produces large increases in your personal happiness when you are starting at the very bottom of the economic ladder. But once you reach a median income level, each increase in income produces an ever diminishing level of additional happiness for your efforts.
The same “diminishing return” effect is seen with achievements in both education and occupation. A jump from no education to junior high school graduation reaps big happiness returns, but progressively higher qualifications reap less and less dramatic happiness improvements. Similarly, you get a much bigger bang from making the leap from unemployed to employed than from moving up the ladder from foreman to manager.
So, while life is pretty miserable at the bottom, happiness is a lot more responsive to the satisfaction of basic needs than to the satisfaction of more ambitious desires.
SO WHY DO WE MAKE CONSUMPTION THE FOCUS OF OUR LIVES?
Most of us, except during occasional ‘blue’ periods, hardly consider our happiness at all. We get used to a familiar ‘set point’ level of happiness and assume that’s it. Too wrapped up and busy just dealing with day-to-day issues we neglect the whole question of our happiness, how well our life is going, and how fulfilled we really are.
In our confusion and lack of focus, much of what we decide to go for in life is aimed at impressing others, rather than what would make us the happiest.
We are mindless victims of the huge emphasis that Western culture places on ‘looking good’. The message that you are basically inadequate unless you can achieve an outward manifestation of material prosperity is behind all marketing and advertising that seeks to persuade us that without product X or Y we are not OK. Our teeth are not white enough, washing not clean enough, car not sexy enough, home not impressive enough, looks not attractive enough, work not prestigious enough…
This message is reinforced every day when we place ourselves passively in front of the television for our daily dose of brain washing. It is celebrated in magazines, movies and television in the lives of the rich, beautiful, and famous – with the promise of the rewards that come to the celebrated ‘winners’ in our society.
Even a moderately successful person would feel inadequate in comparison – that they still don’t have enough, that they still haven’t yet ‘made it’ in the world.
Comparing ourselves to others
Herein lies a crucial happiness fact. It’s hard to be happy when we see ourselves as a “loser”! And the sense of “losing” or “winning” is largely determined by how we consider we are doing in comparison to our peers.
Vying to keep up with the Joneses is a sure road to dissatisfaction with where we are now. And ironically, if we do succeed in closing any perceived gap between us and “them”, the payoff in our happiness will more than likely be pretty insignificant. So resisting the temptation to compare yourself to others, and fostering an attitude of gratitude for what you do have in life is a real happiness booster!
THE ECOLOGICAL TOLL OF OUR UNHAPPY WAYS
The western fixation with materialism and economic growth at all costs exacts a heavy toll on the planet through the extraction and disposal of all the resources needed to fuel our addictions.
Such rampant, wasteful consumerism, predominantly by industrialized countries, has precipitated an escalating environmental crisis of global proportions and implications.
In her book Natural Capitalism, Hunter Lovins elucidates the gravity of the crisis:
ecosystem in the world is now in serious decline.
Out of this alarm, deep ecology has emerged. Deep ecology is an environmental movement initiated in 1972 by Norwegian philosopher Arnie Naess. It calls for a radical change in humanity’s relationship with nature to address the progressive destruction of the precious environment of Earth upon which we all fundamentally depend. Deep ecology is based on two principles.
1. A scientific insight that all systems of life on Earth are essentially related.
This truth has been known, practiced and incorporated as a core spiritual value into the cultures of most ancient and indigenous societies.
In the words of Chief Seattle, Washington 1854:
all the sons of the earth…
Man did not weave the web of life,
he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web,
he does to himself…
IS THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS OUR BEST HOPE FOR SURVIVAL?
However, in the real world human-centredness is the ONLY hope we have for survival because it is based on the abiding imperative of our inherent self-interest. The pursuit of authentic happiness has the power to heal the wounds we have inflicted upon ourselves by our misguided focus on materialism, effortlessly, and automatically setting in motion the healing of our relationships, communities, world and planetary ecosystem.
A growing body of research is demonstrating, for example, that as we become happier, we become better people: more emotionally healthy, physically healthy, creative, energetic, compassionate, and successful. As we start taking better care of ourselves, we start to naturally care more about others, and treat them better.
Our happiness infects those around us, and they become happier, and start treating others more lovingly, and so the chain reaction spreads exponentially… Happy people naturally care about others. Unhappy people naturally don’t – they instead feel alienated and separate from others, nature, and the world.
From the essentially selfish but profound focus on living our own lives more positively aligned towards personally achieving our highest happiness, and highest good, we also have a more life-positive impact on nature.
- No longer mistakenly seeking happiness and fulfillment in the dry well of conspicuous consumption, our rapacious and wasteful appetite for resources abates.
- As a result, our output of wastes, toxins, pollution and rubbish dwindles.
Both have a positive effect on planetary life.
Both can progressively and significantly reduce our ecological impact or ‘footprint’. When we turn from materialism as the way we express and define our existence, towards true and authentic sources of human joy, we naturally become better planetary citizens.
We work less, consume less and free up our time and energy to focus on achieving the good things in life our busy-ness caused us to neglect when we were less conscious: our relationships, our personal convictions and aspirations, our personal development, and our feeling of being connected with nature and indeed life itself. Consuming more consciously softens our impact on the planet.
Voluntary simplicity and simple living
Such voluntary simplicity is a mounting trend that is gaining momentum throughout the Western world. It has been identified as one of the top ten trends currently sweeping the US and Canada, and has recently been launched in Australia by Australian National University as the ‘Downshifting Downunder’ movement.statistics happiness of wealthy people
People are becoming increasingly disillusioned with materialism – many of us have been focused on climbing the ladder of prestige, position, prosperity, power and possessions only to find when we reach the top that it was leaning up against the wrong wall! Pursuit of happiness is the natural human pathway to reforming our culture into one with any prospect of becoming sustainable and enduring.
Happiness is a life-positive ambition…
…its richest source being found in things that have little to do with money, striving for success or consumption.
Focused on our happiness, we have a real chance of restoring our lives and the Earth to the paradise that was meant as our natural birthright. Conversely, the mindless destructive of our own habitat is a symptom of a deep psychological problem in the collective consciousness of industrialised humanity.
Therefore only through restoring our psychological health can we hope to restore wisdom to the way we inhabit Earth. And the hallmark of psychological health is happiness.