April 24, 2011

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

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By Sebastian Deri

I want to devote my life to the pursuit of knowledge. I will gladly forfeit fiscal compensation in the courtroom for intellectual stimulation in the classroom. When others hear this, a smug cocksure look creeps onto their faces. I am naïve and not yet disillusioned. They, more mature and pragmatic, know better. A career where one earns the most is clearly the best. Certainly, the CEO traversing the Pacific on his glistening yacht is happier than the philosophy professor peddling to class on his rusty bicycle.

How can I respond to the incontrovertible supposition that the best life is the one lived by the richest? With the pretentious postulation of a philosophy professor, of course. David Hume once said that “when men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.” Allow me then to deliberate and share some insights that have led me to avert my gaze from the gilded trading floor and peer down the penniless halls of academia instead.

If wealth increased happiness then the richest Americans would be happier than their less affluent comrades. Indubitably, they would be happier than nomadic tribe members in Kenya — where 1.5 million people have AIDS and the average life expectancy is below 60. Well, they aren’t. Professors Edward Diener and Martin Seligman found that Forbes’ 400 richest Americans rate themselves just as happy as Massai tribe members rate themselves. Even lottery winners aren’t happier than paraplegics a month after coming into their new conditions, Professors Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman discovered. Psychologist Robert Kenny makes a living counseling America’s richest residents whom, he has found, often cannot appreciate the “basic joys of living,” feeling habitually anxious and isolated due to their wealth. On a national level, Professor David Myers showed that while the average income of an American (adjusted for inflation) has more than doubled from 1957 to 1998, subjective ratings of happiness have not increased by one scintilla — if anything, they have actually decreased. At the very most, there are rapidly diminishing returns to income, as can be seen in a recent study by Professors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. That means each additional dollar earned makes you less happy than the previous one did, until the additional happiness becomes effectively nonexistent. Just perchance, then, a progressive income tax may not be as inequitable as it appears prima facie — but that’s for a different column.

While money can’t make us much happier or even happier at all, we devote an inordinate portion of our lives to obtaining more of it. In fact, its pursuit determines what we will do during the majority of our waking hours almost every day of every week of every month of every year of most our adult lives. We must, of course, earn enough to afford food and basic amenities. But even at an elite university in a developed country where most of us are fortunate enough that our career possibilities lie well above this boundary, many Cornellians still use earnings as their consummate vocational guidepost. They dismiss, with that smug cocksure grin, those who wish to pursue lower-paying careers as idealistic, unrealistic and impractical. It never occurs to them that it may be impractical, even a grand Sisyphean task, to spend their lives furiously chasing, collecting and hoarding green scraps of cotton that won’t actually make them much happier. They choose to be bankers and not ballerinas because it’s easy to see that $150,000 is larger than $25,000. Well, it’s also easy to see that Ted Bundy is more attractive than me, but that doesn’t mean he’d be a better husband. And just as the most attractive spouse doesn’t make the best marriage (see: Donald Trump or Aristotle Onassis), the highest paying job doesn’t make the best career.

Perhaps the best career advice comes from someone who purports to offer none. In Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, claims his book does not offer “anything useful about how to be happy.” But alas, he suggests that there are three paramount influences on happiness in life: “where to live, what to do, and with whom to do it.” We expect our income can compensate us for living in areas we’d rather not, doing what we don’t want to, and working with people we don’t like. We let our jobs choose these conditions for us instead of choosing our jobs based on these conditions. We need to reverse course. We need to find jobs and careers we actually enjoy. They exist. Maybe, for you, it’s one that also pays a lot. But, for most of us, I suspect it’s not.

Sebastian Deri is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at smd247@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Sebastian Deri