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To What Extent Does Wealth Obtain Happiness?
Happiness is defined to be the state of experiencing positive emotions including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude (“Happiness”, Merriam-Webster). As stated in The Washington Post, the United States of America, in a survey that lists the levels of happiness of 156 countries, has seen a consistent drop for three consecutive years, finally securing a spot at number 19 (Chiu, 2019). A popular assumption is that money is often identified to be a source of happiness (Kahneman and Deaton, 2010). However, research on the matter has often led researchers to a variety of conclusions, and one of the most popular is that the wealthy are not as happy as perceived. Published in a CNN article, “More money can mean Scrooge-like pride,” a study examining the correlation between emotions and wealth, found the wealthy to be more prone to negatively associated emotions than others as a result of discontentment (Scutti, 2018). Conversely, a survey conducted by economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson concluded that the wealthy were significantly happier in comparison to the poor (Wolfers, 2008). Differing results, similar to the ones above, raise one question: To what extent does wealth obtain true happiness? A thorough overall analysis of presented data finds that money only achieves temporary happiness, rather than true, long-term happiness, due to a lack of overall satisfaction and other individual factors.
The focus of this paper is to understand the connection between wealth and long-term happiness. Hence, it is vital to explore the difference between long-term happiness and temporary happiness. “Have You Renounced Pleasure,” an excerpt from The Book Of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, differentiates long-term and temporary happiness based on how each is achieved. The Dalai Lama and Tutu suggest that external stimuli of human senses cause sensory pleasure, resulting in immediate satisfaction. However, satisfaction received from stimuli only causes a temporary state of joy because once the stimuli stop, satisfaction and joy are not experienced at the same level (Dalai Lama and Tutu, 2016). Watching television, for example, would provide an individual temporary satisfaction acquired through sensory pleasure, such as sound and vision. However, that satisfaction would be terminated once the individual finishes watching television because the experience is over and the pleasure is not as captivating as it previously was. True, long-term happiness, however, is achieved through the mind at a “deeper level” through emotions (Dalai Lama and Tutu, 2016). That is, positive emotions, such as love and generosity, allows the mind to indulge in the essence of happiness because it provides a sense of fulfillment, rather than longing and discontent. Thus, the difference between temporary and enduring happiness is the process of how happiness is achieved in terms of emotions rather than sensory pleasure.
Satisfaction is a major factor in ephemeral happiness, especially since both satisfaction and happiness have a similar range of positive emotions, such as pleasure and contentment for one’s life situation (Haybron, 2019). According to the Dalai Lama, excessive materialism in today’s society has allowed society members to fulfill their desires easily and more efficiently with advanced technology. An abundance of satisfaction can cause an individual to lose the value of the pleasures they experience. By taking things for granted, individuals lose gratitude for the items they possess and become “numb” to the pleasure, and thus become less happy (Dalai Lama and Tutu, 2016). A 2010 research report, “Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away,” published in the Association for Psychological Sciences, studied the effects of wealth on an individual’s ability to experience certain emotions. Researchers found that while a need for wealth was unrelated to an individual’s need or ability to experience positive emotions, an increase in wealth resulted in a decrease in the ability for individuals to savor any positive emotions they experience (Quoidbach, et al., 2010). Individual factors also contribute to this inability to relish in small, positive pleasures. For instance, stress over work can eliminate positive emotions that wealth may provide. The inability to savor small pleasures when they can be easily achieved by wealth suggests that money does not buy happiness.
Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences recipients Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton published a research article addressing society’s correlation between wealth, emotions, and overall life satisfaction. As stated in “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being,” “Emotional well-being refers to the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience….Life evaluation refers to a person’s thoughts about his or her life (Kahneman and Deaton, 2010).” Deaton and Angus found that an increase in wealth led to an increase in overall life satisfaction, but at an income of about $75,000, emotional well-being did not improve, mostly due to other superficial factors (Kahneman and Deaton, 2010). An apt example is of Nick Smith, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. In his article “Poverty, Money, and Happiness”, Smith declares himself to be happier as a professor at a university as opposed to his previous job as an attorney in a Manhattan law firm, despite Smith receiving a higher salary as an attorney. Smith describes himself to be happier because of the freedom he receives to “structure” his workday and the fulfillment he receives from his job (Smith, 2008). Taking Smith’s experience and the results of Kahneman and Deaton’s study into account, it is logical to deduce that wealth does not necessarily affect an individual’s happiness unless it affects other factors of an individual’s situation. For instance, individuals with ill family members would experience stress regardless of wealth, which is suggested in the article to be a “blue effect” or negative emotional range (Kahneman and Deaton, 2010). Similarly, poverty could affect an individual’s mental health and lead to depression. Age and race are also included in these factors. “Genes, Economics, and Happiness”, by scientists, economists, and sociologists Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, James Fowler, Nicholas Christakis, and Bruno Frey, is a research article that observes the effects of genetics and economics on happiness. From the gathered data, they were able to conclude that while gender did not alter levels of happiness, race did. Specifically, African and Asian Americans were found to be less happy compared to Whites, but Latinos were found to be comparatively happier. Older age can also be seen as a factor, although it is less effective compared to race (De Neve, et al., 2012). With careful analysis of this data, it can be concluded that an individual’s emotional well-being is not only influenced by wealth but also by health, family, and other personal issues. On the contrary, it should be noted that wealth affects an individual’s overall life satisfaction.
Professor of psychology Richard Davidson presents an alternative way of achieving true happiness. Davidson’s research on meditation and its effect on the brain reveals that the brain has four independent circuits, with each one influencing the well-being of the brain. The circuits are dedicated to maintain a positive mentality, to focus, and to be generous (Davidson, 2016). Generosity has been linked with positive emotions for years, as kindness acts as a catalyst for happiness and higher self-esteem. Social psychologists Elizabeth Dunn, Laura Aknin, and J. Kiley Hamlin examine the effect of generosity on toddlers and deduced toddlers to be happier when providing treats compared to receiving treats (Aknin, et al., 2012). It can then be concluded that generosity, compared to greed, is necessary for humans to experience happiness, because it associates positive emotions with happiness.
Arguably, to an extent, money can buy happiness, depending on how money is used. Researchers Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, in their article “If Money Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren't Spending It Right,” suggest that money can buy happiness when spent effectively. Specifically, money is used properly when it brings joy to an individual based upon speculation of the experience of others (Dunn, et al., 2011). For example, when shopping online, an individual may buy or reject an item based upon the review and experiences of others. Money is then properly used and can achieve some level of happiness when the use of money is approved by others. A connection can be made between this idea and the findings of Research fellow Summer Allen. Allen examined the effect of generosity on happiness. Her research found that, despite the income of Americans, those that donated money or spent it on others were found to be generally happier than those who spent the money on themselves (Allen, 2018). Relating to Davidson’s findings regarding generosity and neuroscience, generosity and happiness tends to trigger a series of positive effects on the human body. In 2005, William Michael Brown, Nathan Consedine, and Carol Magai researched and determined that the elderly who were generous had better health overall (Brown, et al., 2005). In their 2011 research paper “Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity”, Ed Diener and Micaela Chan conclude that happiness, or “subjective well-being” can improve an individual’s overall health and may even add additional years to one’s life span (Diener and Chan, 2011). Selfless actions, like donations, lead to the approval and happiness of individuals being affected by the action. Consequently, this leads to happiness in the individual performing the action and can improve that individual's overall health. Wealth plays a minor role in buying happiness and improving health unless it is spent effectively and triggers the brain’s circuit dedicated to generosity. It is not personal wealth or greed that buys an individual's happiness, but generosity.
Wealth can be a source of happiness but it does not equate to happiness. True happiness comes from internal satisfaction and fulfillment, often through a selfless act of generosity, that benefits not only oneself but others at the same time. The level of happiness correlates with the experience of positive emotions. This results in overall improved well-being and reduced health factors that often lead to debilitating physical and mental illnesses. Although race and underlying health conditions can fluctuate the level of maximal happiness experienced, the positive benefits of true lasting happiness on society as a whole outweighs temporary joy that is fleeting and limited to oneself. Thus, while wealth is used as a means to obtain satisfaction in one’s life, it should not be conflated with happiness.
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Chiu, Allyson. “Americans Are the Unhappiest They've Ever Been, U.N. Report Finds. An 'Epidemic of Addictions' Could Be to Blame.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Mar. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/03/21/americans-are-unhappiest-theyve-ever-been-un-report-finds-an-epidemic-addictions-could-be-blame/.
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