Miserable millionaires? Happy poor?

The phrases seem backwards, almost an affront to our deep-seated but often unspoken belief in the power of prosperity to create contentment. After all, if the king in his castle is not delighted in his circumstances, then what is it all about?

Carol Graham, a University of Maryland professor of public policy, recently authored “Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires.” In the past 35 years, real per capita income in the United States has risen by more than 60 percent. Still, the number of Americans who describe themselves as “very happy” or “pretty happy” remains unchanged.

Even though real per capita American income has DOUBLED since the mid 1950s, our level of self reported happiness, our “subjective well-being,” has remained amazingly stagnant.

Big deal, we all know money doesn’t buy happiness, right? Yet we continue to act and spend as if financial well being and personal contentment are tightly linked. The well-off often are slightly more happy then the poor but once abject poverty is escaped the difference is minimal.

Why? Theories abound, but most agree that conditioning is a major factor. You can get used to pretty much anything. We quickly adapt to both the lifestyles of the rich and famous and to being poor. The circumstances of our lives quickly turn into background noise and we become about as happy as we make up our minds to be.

If there is a lesson in this it is that GDP growth is a lousy proxy for social progress. Traffic jams may increase gasoline consumption and thus GDP, but no one would argue that we are better off as a result.

Other possible measures (beyond GDP) of social progress
– Rate of natural resource depletion
– Spread of freedom/civil liberties/privacy
– Education/self actualization
– Health/fitness
– Environmental cleanliness

Obviously no one measure, no one number, can capture the rich diversity of human experience or expectations. However, widespread awareness of the inherent limitations of looking at hard numbers or solitary measures to quantify complex social goals is itself a form of social progress.

Closing Quotes (lots!):

Know thyself: “People routinely mis-predict how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring.” — Daniel Gilbert, Harvard researcher, author of “Stumbling on Happiness”

”Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place. But there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.” — E.L. Konigsburg

“Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.” — Robertson Davies

“Those who can laugh without cause have either found the true meaning of happiness or have gone stark raving mad.” — Norm Papernick

“Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” — Colette

“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” — James Openheim

“Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open.” — John Barrymore

“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.” — Margaret Young

“Indeed, man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.” — Saint Augustine

“Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them one’s self?” — Ralph Waldo Emerson