The Thinker

Why be happy?

Money cannot buy us love, the Beatles told us. Apparently, it cannot make us happy either. At least that is the conclusion of this article in today’s Washington Post.

A wealth of data in recent decades has shown that once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 a year, more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction. From 1958 to 1987, for example, income in Japan grew fivefold, but researchers could find no corresponding increase in happiness.

I feel like the sirens should be wailing. Adam Smith should be rolling in his grave too. Could it be that our capitalist society is built on a foundation of sand? Wasn’t the whole purpose of gaining wealth for us to be happier? Would most of us really be happier, or at least as happy, grubbing at some minimum wage job and living in austere surroundings than we are in our McMansions with three cars in the driveway?

I am thinking of a man I see regularly where I work. I see him when I go home in the evenings. He is on the ground floor and he is pushing a wide broom across the tile floors. “Have a great evening sir,” he says to me without fail, with a big happy smile on his face. He is utterly sincere and the content sound in his voice is impossible to fake. Just down the hall a bit there is the guard I usually see in the morning as I enter our building. He is always exceedingly pleasant. He could even be described as perky. He is such a morning person. He greets me with a sincere, “How are you doing today, sir?” I always mumble something polite, but I just do not feel as full of life as he does. After he checks my badge, he tells me “Have a wonderful day,” and it is clear that he means it too. I say the same to him, and while I mean it intellectually, I do not feel it in my heart. I have other things on my brain other than how wonderful this guard’s day turns out. I head upstairs to my office to slog through a hundred or so emails. He hangs out in the lobby, checks badges and makes light conversation with the many people coming in and out. I have been admiring him for his contentment and wholeness, characteristics I still lack after 49 years. For this modest security guard also has something of a following among the women in the building. He flirts with them and they flirt back. He walks with a skip in his step. It is not that he is especially handsome; he is middle age like me. I suspect I make at least three times what he makes a year. Am I as happy as he is? I doubt it.

So here I am with my six figure income. Why am I not happier? I have been to Hawaii and enjoyed it immensely. In two days, I fly off to Paris with my family. That will make me even happier, right? I will have experienced more of this world. I do not know what kind of vacation, if any, the broom pusher in the lobby at work will be getting this year. I imagine pushing the broom is just one of two or three jobs that he is shuffling. I have time to exercise after work and even to blog. I hire people to cut my lawn. Maybe his idea of downtime is going to church, or bowling with friends. Yet, I must, I should be happier, right? Ain’t necessarily so.

I often ask myself, is this it? While I will not get into details, I realize we spend a lot of money in my family trying to make ourselves happier. For example, there is mental illness in our family. We do the modern things to improve the situation. Certain unnamed family members may or may not be on antidepressants and may or may not be talking regularly with therapists. Would we have been happier if we had less choice and opportunity than we do? Was our pursuit of prosperity the very thing that led us to having more unhappiness in our lives? Consequently, is this why my family now needs frequent consultations with mental health experts?

I appear to have all the things by which one measures success and happiness. I have a wife and daughter who love me. I have a job I truly enjoy and which fully engages me. I have a comfortably sized house that is well maintained and keeps appreciating in value. My nest egg grows every year and after talking to my financial adviser last week, I know it will grow even faster in the future. I myself earn more than twice the average national household income. Yet what fixates me is not what I enjoy about life, but those things that really should not matter at all. You might say I spent thirty percent of my time obsessing about the five percent of my life that I feel is out of kilter. I cannot be happy unless I am happy all the time. Otherwise, some part of me remains miserable. Otherwise, my life feels cheapened and not optimized somehow.

Perhaps happiness comes from letting that five percent go. Perhaps happiness is simply a state of mind. Perhaps it comes from the willingly suspending disbelief. Instead, I am fixated on what might happen. If someone earns $12,000 a year, he likely does not have any health insurance. Yet according to this article, he is as happy as I am. Yet for some illogical reason I feel I must be happier because I have health insurance and they probably do not. If they get seriously sick, they are in serious financial straights. They can even die. I am more likely to hang around. So I will be alive to do what? I will still probably do what I do now, and keep spending thirty percent of my time obsessing about the five percent of my life that is not optimized for my personal happiness.

The angels are whispering to me, “To be happy, let it go.” Let go of that five percent. It is beginning to dawn on me that the reason I obsess on the missing five percent is that all my life I have been in a Darwinian struggle for survival. Survival of the fittest is hardwired into my brain. I cannot escape from this pattern because it is integrated into my character the same way my irises have always been blue. However, improving the odds of my survival does not necessarily make me happier. It should make me less anxious. It is more likely to make me neurotic. Perhaps that is the reason my family spend so much money on doctors and therapists. Yet improving our odds of surviving will not keep us from dying in time either. However, there may be some illusionary satisfaction from keeping the wolves outside the gate. The happiest people though seem unconcerned that there may be wolves at the gate.

Yes, it was Paul McCartney who crooned, “Money can’t buy me love”. Moreover, didn’t he just turn 64? Didn’t this song suggest that no one could really love him when he turned 64 because at that age he was old and therefore unlovable? Well, maybe Linda would still love him had she survived. Is it just coincidence then that now at age 64 we find in the news that Paul divorced his baby doll wife? Heather Mills now has a reputed ten million pounds from Sir Paul to help her find happiness somewhere and with someone else. Presumably, her happiness no longer takes the form of spending time with a rich senior citizen.

I do know who is happy though. It does not appear to be Sir Paul, and it is not me at least for a significant chunk of my day (although logically I should be very happy). Whom do I know who is happy? I see him many days pushing a broom. Yet for the life of me, I do not know whether such happiness is worthy of aspiration, or delusional. Survival of the fittest may not actually make me all that much happier, but human history suggests that maybe it is a worthier aspiration.

 

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