There is clearly a perceived correlation between having money and being happy. Many people cite the lack of it as being a major obstacle to happiness, even those that most of us would think of as being rich already. We tend to think that those richer than ourselves must be happier. We also naturally consider those with significantly more money than ourselves to be rich, but most people do not think of themselves as rich, no matter how much money they may have.
Studies do show, however, that those people with higher incomes tend to report being more satisfied with life than those with lower ones. Looking back to Maslow’s hierarchy, it seems obvious that those unable to satisfy basic needs such as food and security are bound to be somewhat unhappy. Nevertheless, once an acceptable standard has been attained, further increases do not produce greater happiness. In fact, since the fifties, though effective income has doubled in the US , the perceived level of happiness has fallen slightly. Those who aim for material success, status and high income, report lower levels of well being than those who value friendship and marriage more highly. As the psychologist David Myers has put it (Ref. 44): “Happiness seems less a matter of getting what we want than of wanting what we have”.
The problem is that our attitude to material possessions adjusts according to our ability to obtain them. Suppose that some new electronic device comes onto the market and we see all of our peers seduced into buying them. Providing that the price is not too far out of our reach, it is likely that we will want one too. We will save the money (or, more likely these days, reach for the nearest credit card) and buy one for ourselves. For a time, we will feel pleased and enjoy the novelty of our new toy. But all too soon we become accustomed to having it, forget what it was like to be without it, and turn our attention to something else.
Fortunately, it works the other way round too. Before I was made redundant a number of years ago, I had a reasonably well paid job. My wife and I did not have a profligate lifestyle – we did not go on expensive holidays, follow all of the fashions in clothes or go out to clubs or expensive restaurants. But then we would occasionally go away for the weekend and think nothing about going out to see a play, buying a book or a CD. Since then, forced to live on an early pension and a few savings, we literally monitor all of our outgoings and think carefully before indulging ourselves in any way. Naturally, there is some disappointment in not being able routinely to pursue some of the activities that we used to but, overall, our level of satisfaction with life is not significantly diminished. In fact, from my own point of view, writing books is a distinct improvement upon the profession that I previously followed.
It often seems that the government bases its decisions on whatever will generate the most money. In recent years in the UK , this even seems to extend to health care, rail travel, education and social services. Nowadays many will decide to go to university so that they will get a higher paid job at the end rather than for the purpose of receiving a good education. Prior to the nineteen seventies, developing a meaningful philosophy of life was deemed to be a much more important reason for attending college. Sic transit gloria mundi!