There’s a spoof article written by Psychology Today about the mental stresses and challenges faced by people who became overnight millionaires, like lottery winners or teenage musicians that reach stardom early on. They poke fun by providing therapy-based ‘solutions’ like this:
“Our “Wealth as a Second Language” course will teach you how to: complain about the lack of decent service; discern the subtle yet important differences between the Mercedes 928 and the 928i; and buy your unborn children spots in the preschool that sends the most kids to Harvard.”
This article was probably written tongue-in-cheek with the goal of appealing to a broad audience. Indeed, it’s easy for us to chuckle at the first-world problems that a millionaire might have. We might think, “If only we were that rich, we’d be better off, happier and surely we wouldn’t complain!”
In reality, it’s more likely that we’d need to see a therapist. One study compared a group of 22 lottery winners, a control group and a group of paraplegics. They found no apparent difference in happiness levels. Another study on income levels found that people in the U.S. earning below $35,000 are at higher risk of suicide. While the suicide rate initially decreases as your salary increases, once you hit a certain level – $75,000 per year- the suicide rate shoots back up (the chart below).
Suicide also increases when your neighbors are making comparatively more than you are — the downside of “keeping up with the Joneses.” When it comes to the glamor of living a ‘celebrity life,’ one has only to look at so many of our favorite actors and musicians who have taken their own lives.
As the Notorious B.I.G once wisely said, “Mo’ Money Mo Problems.”
And while the idea that money is only one factor in the happiness equation is nothing new, it’s worth restating as it’s easy to get caught up in money-making rat-races. Just think, even one hundred years ago we’d need a proportionately larger amount of money to get the ‘stuff’ we want, nowadays we need a lot less money to get those same luxuries, like stainless steel wire taco-shell holders that are available for 2 bucks each online now, but in the olden days, people had to enlist the services of a blacksmith to be able to safely cradle their tacos.
Nowadays, a feast that only King Louis XIV could afford five hundred years ago, is now within reach at pretty much any supermarket.
“Pass the ketchup, Moliere.”
If you’re already making in the ballpark of 75k USD (or relative income depending on purchasing power in your country), and life isn’t objectively improved by raking in more Benjamins, how can we measure the more relevant status of our personal happiness?
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a very poor yardstick for us to use, despite its religious use by economists and pundits. In David Pilling’s book The Growth Delusion, he points out that “if you’re stuck in traffic for an hour, that contributes to GDP, but if you go around to a friend’s house to help out, that doesn’t.” The problem is that GDP is good at measuring physical goods and products, but it’s bad at measuring services.
Not to mention, GDP also counts military spending (is that really a net positive for us?), fails to count for negative side effects (like pollution) and relies on the idea of infinitely increasing consumption, which we know is ultimately unsustainable (just look at Jinan, China’s second most polluted city).
What about work-life balance, safety, environment, average income, affordable healthcare, community engagement, and job opportunities?
Those all sound like factors that would influence happiness, and that I would certainly consider when moving to a new city or country. The OECD created a “Better Life Index” that measures just that. The cool part is that you can adjust all of these levers based on your subjective preference and give them different weights. Don’t care so much about having a high salary and prefer to live in a safe place with a clean environment? Try Estonia. Civic engagement and work life balance not important? Hop over to Japan.
This is a nifty tool to reference and I encourage you to check it out — but keep in mind it’s a work in progress as there are only a few countries listed. There are also a host of factors beyond these that influence one’s happiness, like your mental, spiritual and physical health, which may very well be independent of what country you live in. Research suggests that when we are wealthy we tend to look at our lives and classify ourselves as ‘happy,’ but on the other hand, money doesn’t seem to exert the same influence on our day-to-day, moment-by-moment experiences of life. In this regard, money doesn’t seem to necessarily imply a lived experience of happiness. Daniel Kahneman has a great TED talk here that sums up this concept.
While happiness is a complex subject, my greater point is that it’s good to get beyond just thinking about money, specifically, and keep a more well-rounded perspective on the wide ranging mix of influences that bring us joy in life. In doing so, we might proactively avoid the ‘trap’ that so many fall into, particularly once we see our incomes increase.
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