"The hippies," claimed economist Andrew Oswald recently, "are having their quiet revenge." Oswald, a professor at Warwick University in England, is one of a growing number of economists fascinated by the question of what makes us happy. In a recent public lecture he announced, "Once a country has filled its larders, there is no point in that nation becoming richer." That, at least, should bring a smile to a few faces. Economists have suddenly realized that money can't buy you happiness? This is like the squarest kid at school suddenly discovering beer, girls and music in his 30s. The rest of the world had worked it out already.
One of the things that excite economists like Oswald is the ability to compare data on wealth, education and marital status with the results of happiness surveys. In these surveys, people are asked such questions as "Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy, and not at all happy?" Economists have been trying to make sense of the results across individuals, across countries and across the years. The headline: Once a country gets fairly rich, further economic growth does not seem to make its citizens any happier.
So, money does not buy happiness. Or does it? "In every society, at any point in time, richer people are happier," points out Will Wilkinson, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C., who runs a Blog on happiness research and public policy. "But that in itself doesn't tell you much about the relationship between money and happiness."
Richer people, after all, tend to have high-status jobs. They tend to have more control over their lives at work--why pay someone six figures if you're not going to ask her to use her own judgment? They also have higher expectations and will be comparing themselves to wealthier people. It's hard to say what is really driving the results: money, status or expectations.
Perhaps each society's richer people are also happier because happiness comes not from absolute wealth but from relative wealth--recall H.L. Mencken's quip that "a wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife's sister's husband." A more skeptical view is that while it means something to compare my happiness with that of the guy asking me for change on the street, it means nothing to compare my feelings today to those of my grandfather in 1950--or those of a Portuguese shopkeeper or a Japanese salaryman.