Happiness has a value - not a price

Do you want to be happier in your life? Most people say they want to be happier, but often their ideas of what would make them happier are either counterproductive (ie, working longer hours to make more money to buy more material things) or unrealistic (ie, winning the lottery).

As suggested by my examples, people often feel having more money will substantially improve happiness. However, the empirical evidence on happiness does not support this simple view. Research conducted in New Zealand has shown additional money for people who have little money does genuinely boost happiness, but the same additional money for people with incomes greater than $80,000 a year does not. So money does seem to ‘buy happiness’, but only for people with no money or low incomes.

Many people in New Zealand are caught on the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’, where they work harder to bring in more money so they can spend it on new material objects to increase their hedonic pleasure, only to find the pleasure derived from these objects lessens over time due to familiarity and accommodation. Thus, individuals work harder and harder to achieve fleeting pleasure, leaving a residual sense of dissatisfaction and frustration.

So if material objects do not confer a lasting and sustainable source of happiness, what does? Research on the sources of happiness, wellbeing and life satisfaction points us toward other factors.

Humans are intensely social animals, and we derive a great deal of enjoyment from interactions with other people. Surveys in many countries around the world reliably point to good relationships with family, friends and co-workers as a powerful predictor of happiness.

Engagement with the world in the form of work, volunteerism, community groups, sports involvement and other activities is also counted as a major contributor to life satisfaction. Being part of a group that is bigger than the individual and making a positive difference in the world confers a sense of meaningfulness many people consider important.

Having adequate money for a life where basic needs can be met is a foundation on which happiness can be built. It is difficult to obtain and sustain happiness in a life marred by poverty, danger and hardship.

Mark Twain wisely said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.”

Having challenging work is considered valuable because it gives the person the opportunity to overcome obstacles to achieve a desirable goal. A sense of efficacy and of being capable helps the person build a sense of self-worth and belongingness.

Having adequate money for a life where basic needs can be met - ie, food, shelter, transportation, education and safety—is a foundation on which happiness can be built. It is difficult to obtain and sustain happiness in a life marred by poverty, danger and hardship.

A person who possesses adequate coping skills and resources is resilient against the inevitable difficulties all people face. Happiness is engendered by a sense of competence and resourcefulness, conferring a sense of confidence in the face of an uncertain future.

Finally, an awareness and acknowledgement that happiness is a delicate human emotion is beneficial. Some people strive for happiness in a mechanistic, by-the-numbers approach, but it seems to be an evanescent phenomenon, often eluding concerted efforts to capture it. Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Achieving happiness, then, is arguably different than trying to achieve a discrete life-goal such as obtaining a degree in higher education, which requires hard work, concentration and sacrifice. Instead, happiness may best be approached by thinking about it as a natural by-product of living a life of good value, practising compassion for others, feeling a sense of awe and gratitude for the people and things in your life, and engaging in worthwhile, generative activities.

Paul Jose’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington is titled ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ and is on Tuesday 17 October.

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