Monday, August 4, 2008

On Money and Happiness

The final chapter of my book, Enjoy Your Money, addresses the relationship between money and happiness. When does more money make us happier? When does it not? I pulled part of my research from psychologist David Myers. Here's a summary of one of his books:

David G. Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)

Why do we have more stuff and comforts than we've ever had, yet people report more misery and dissatisfaction with life than when people had much less? Thus the paradox that Myers, a respected social psychologist, tries to explain.

Citing abundant studies and reflecting on their accuracy and meaning, Myers concludes that, although money helps our happiness when it lifts us above the poverty line, it doesn't really help our well-being when it grants us more than we need. Supporting this thesis are studies that find lottery winners initially exuberant, but later adjusting to their former level of happiness. Similarly, accident victims who lose their eyesight or find themselves suddenly quadraplegic, initially fight depression but eventually find themselves with about the same level of happiness as before the accident.

Who finds themselves less happy than others? Those who strive most for material wealth. How fascinating! While many give lip service to the religious teachings and wisdom of the wise who insist that "it's better to give than to receive" and that "real happiness comes more from caring relationships than accumulating lots of stuff," Myers demonstrates from study after study that these teachings are true.

Myers comes with sound credentials. As professor of Psychology at Hope College, his research and writings can be found in over sixty periodicals. His psychology textbooks are used in nearly one thousand colleges and universities.


1. Poverty isn't good. Some may cry "duh!", but many hold a noble ideal of leaving the corporate rat-race, working minimum wage or part-time and earning minimum wage and playing their guitar on street corners for spare change. Others are so mission-minded that they want to live in the ghetto and serve those around them. While this may be fine for singles, it's not good for raising children. They'll likely grow up in fear, choosing the wrong role models in a crack neighborhood. Plan on making enough money to live in a decent neighborhood, send your children to decent schools, and have decent health care. Find ways to help those who are in poverty and support policies that help people out of poverty.

2. Materialism leads to misery. Studies show that those who strive most for wealth are less happy than those who put relationships first.

3. Do everything we can to promote stable families. The sexual revolution that started in the 60's brought more misery than happiness. The best sex happens in the context of a committed, long-term relationship - what we traditionally call marriage. Much of the depression and anxiety and maladjustment and violence of youth can be traced directly to their unstable homes. Sure, we all need a village - but we also need a family. Much, much research shows the power of the stable family unit to produce productive, happy children. A huge amount of today's poverty can be a attributed ruptured families that must survive with single parents. Promote government policies that promote stable families. Stay faithful to your spouse and children.

4. Promote living for others and community rather than radical individualism. Myers identifies the latter as one of the most remarkable characteristics of the present age. It's also the root of much of today's misery. This has been a huge shift in attitude since the 50's. Today, people typically seek personal peace and affluence above all else. Paradoxically, those who strive hardest to satisfy me, me, me end up less satisfied with life than those who are more concerned with others. The most obvious place we see this is in marriage. Those who go into it for what they can get end up unfilled and often divorced. Those who go into it with more selfless aspirations get the most fulfillment.

5. Character education must continue to grow and prosper in our schools. Communities agree on many traits they want to see in their students, such as honesty, diligence, concern for others, etc. Schools have the responsibility to partner with parents and community leaders to reinforce these traits in the school.

6. Religion is a positive force in the world. Sure, there are plenty of examples of religious people and organizations who've been negative. But when you look at the big picture, religion has been extremely positive for the world. The vast majority of work with the poor and down and out is done directly by religious organizations or done through secular organizations by religous people. Deeply religious people also report significantly greater happiness than the irreligious.

7. Involvement in corporate worship is essential for spiritual growth. The individualism of our age impact many people's approach to religion. They see little need to meet with other religious people when they feel they can just as easily worship and please God on their own. Yet, Myers sites numerous studies that find that meeting with people of similar beliefs strengthens your own beliefs. Also, studies find that those who don't meet with other believers neither serve nor give like believers who take corporate worship seriously.