Monday, September 21, 2009


Matthew Rabin in class last week made an off-hand comment that, as expected, richer people turn out to be happier when you measure happiness correctly. I'm curious as to the details of these measurements because I would reject both the accuracy (or at least the robustness) of that trend (based on my own observations) and the assertion that that's what we should expect to see. But, I'm not surprised that this is the common wisdom.

First of all, here's why I disagree with the overall claim (note that I am referring to day-to-day happiness, not a long-term sense of fulfillment or long-run discontentment): Wall Street Investors: rich and unhappy. Parents with lots of kids to support: A little poor, medium happy. Destitute and dysfunctional Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn residents: poor and fairly happy. Average Oklahomans: a little poor, a little happy. Average Manhattanite: a little rich, a little unhappy. Enough examples, you see my point...

And, to a large extent, this still holds when you take long-term happiness into account. Not many single moms with boyfriends in prison in section 8 housing living on food stamps in Brooklyn expect life to be any different or better. They won't be disappointed. Meanwhile, doctors expect to heroically fix the world's problems and retire millionaires with loving families comfortably taken care of. They will be.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt a priori that more money makes you happier:

  • Ambition is a result of perpetual discontentment: people who are never happy will tend to get farther because they're always trying to get to the next level where magically they will finally have enough money to be happy.
  • Ambition is also a mix of a reaction to actual desires and societal expectations: and when you're doing something just because you think you have to, it won't make you very happy.
  • Ambition is also a result of putting high standards on yourself: and when you do that, you're frustrated or disappointed whenever you inevitably and probably perpetually don't live up to those expectations completely.
  • Material comforts are like candy: there can be too much of a good thing. Everyone wants the option to afford a car to drive to work and to live in a climate controlled environment and to have other people cook for you, and when you have that option, you almost always take it. But exercise, fresh air, and manual labor is still needed to avoid falling into a metaphorical sugar coma (ie the perptual depressive nature of suburbanites) and to appreciate the material comforts when you use them.

Of course it's not impossible to have your cake and eat it too. Figure out what you love and do it for a living. If you're lucky you happen to love something that pays the bills. (And this is why academics are so happy.)

And of course it makes sense that the common wisdom is that, nonetheless, richer people are happier. We all think we would be happier with more money. After all, how can having more options make you less happy? But we fail to take into account that having more options leaves you more prone to self-destructively hedonistic behavior, and that if you had more money, you would be a different type of person entirely, so it's not a valid comparison (outside of universal lotteries and unexpected inheritances...)

And yet, I wouldn't know how to go about proving my theory. I bet if you ask all those Brooklyn teenage single moms if they're happy, they will say no. And it's mindboggling to me to think that they could be, in that situation. Yet I've never seen a population of people who spends such a high fraction of time hanging around laughing and dancing to music and having fun with friends and family. They're evidentally usually in a very good mood despite the impossible situation, I assume just because they've gotten so used to that standard of living, but the impossible situation is what they refer to when asked if they're happy.

Actually, I bet they'd admit to being happy to their peers. Maybe that's the way to do it. Being asked by an anonymous third party triggers a comparison to the overall average standard of living, which doesn't have anything to do with what mood you're usually in. Or, specifically ask about moods in short timespans: "how happy were you at 8am, 9am, 10am..."


Anonymous said...

the ambitious people and the poor people are not mutually exclusive categories.... (and im sure there are lots of rich people who managed to be born/end up that way w/o undue ambition)
and i think low income urban people in the US often have much easier access to cheap unhealthy food.

Vera said...

yeah you're right about the food quality consumed in general by poor vs rich people. but the first bit is pretty irrelevant - of course there are exceptions to every trend. but I think the correlation between "trying to be rich" and "being rich" is indubitable and much stronger than the correlation between "being rich" and "being happy".

somebody said...