Can’t Buy Me Love

It’s been said that addiction is an increasing thirst for a decreasing satisfaction. It turns out that when we equate wealth with happiness, we may be on course for addiction in that sense.

A typical mindset among we who spend our lifetimes in or seeking gainful employment operate under a host of tacit assumptions, some of which are correct, some of which are partially so, and some of which are just dead wrong. The problem is that no alarm bell goes off when our brains wander from the former into the latter. When we’re getting things wrong – like say, our expectations for what will make us happy – we still feel like we’re probably right.

Our expectations for what will make us happy are significantly wrong.

That’s not just speculation. The social sciences are now doing quantifiable research on human satisfaction, a relatively new field of serious study within psychology that has popped up over the last 20 years. Laurie Santos at Yale has a class (available for free on Coursera) entitled “The Science of Well-Being,” and Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard teaches “The Science of Happiness.” Also at Harvard, Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology, has published “Stumbling on Happiness,” which chronicles the brain’s missteps into “miswanting,” the act of wanting the wrong things.

When it comes to money, and wanting it, and predicting how happy it will make us, we are way off. A study done of people making on average $30,000 per year were asked how much they would need to make to satisfy them, to end their financial stresses, and they said, on average, $50,000. When the same question was asked of people making $100,000, on average, they said $250,000 (Lyubomirsky, 2008). To quantify it, researches deduced that on average, for every $1 more we make per year, we’re going to expect we need $1.40 more than that. In fact, the stronger the goal of financial success, the lower the satisfaction with relationships, and satisfaction with relationships is one of the greatest predictors of overall happiness (“Zeroing In on the Dark Side of the American Dream,” Nickerson, et. al.). Increasing desire; decreasing satisfaction.

What is true of parts is true of the whole as well. Studies have shown that for all of the advances in technology, wealth, and overall life circumstances in America since the 1950s, it “has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being” (“The American Paradox,” Meyers).

It shouldn’t be surprising that this newfound science of the Spirit – because it is, ultimately, a study of the human soul – simply validates what the Bible has always said. Ecclesiastes states, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Jesus would later ask, “What does it profit a person to gain the world but to lose their soul?” And a band of British prophets once declared, “Money can’t buy me love!” More importantly, it is love, not money, that most contributes to our happiness, according to an 80-year long longitudinal study at Harvard.

Unfortunately, there is a large swath of the American public, and probably the world, who are wholeheartedly handing over their souls in pursuit of the miswanting of money.

It gets worse.

A Canadian study of the next-door neighbors of lottery winners showed that they neighbors were unusually likely to go bankrupt, and the larger the lottery prize, the larger the likelihood. When the lottery included the award of a car, the next-door neighbors were unusually more likely to buy a new car as well. Happiness is, unfortunately, relative to whatever we are comparing ourselves. One survey even showed that a majority of people would prefer a lower salary at a company where everyone was making less than them than a higher salary at a company where everyone was making more than them. The wanting here is correct – it’s the comparison, not the dollar amount, that is most likely to lend itself to happiness.

So a few solid facts about money and happiness:

  1. The strong pursuit of it can make us less happy.
  2. After a certain income (on average $75,000 in the US), the degree to which our happiness increases with our income levels off considerably.
  3. People who give money to charity or spend money on others report higher levels of happiness. Not only that, but for adults age 50 and older, those who spend at least 4 ours per week in community service are 40% less likely to have high blood pressure than their peers who do not.
  4. Money is not completely unrelated to happiness, but the stance we take towards it and the way we use it are far more determinant of how happy it makes us than is how much we have.

This has made me spend a good deal of time thinking about what I really want. How about you?

Rebuilding Happiness

“Happiness then, is found to be something perfect and self sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.”

– Aristotle, Ethics

Of all the things we lost in 2020, the most devastating was our day-to-day happiness. We lost not only the apathetic normalcy of suburban America, but the stabilizing calm of a world that has a chance for a peaceful tomorrow when today was kind of lousy. There was no clear hope for that tomorrow – no one knew when tomorrow would roll around.

It looks like tomorrow may come in a big way in April, 2021. As vaccines distribute worldwide and the number of recoveries increases by the day, we inch closer to a herd immunity and public sentiment that will pave the way to public life. As we forge ahead in that direction, I am thinking about rebuilding not just routines and freedoms, but happiness. And by this, I mean the opposite of normal. Normal is the baseline against which happy is measured. If normal is ground level, happiness is a mountaintop. I’m not going back to normal. I’m going to chase happiness.

Fortunately for me, two things are at play. Scientific studies on the sources of happiness (and its obstacles) have for the last decade emerged as a legitimate field of study in psychology. Quantifiable research is being done on what makes us happy and why. Secondly, this is the iGeneration. All those studies are available everywhere and all the time. Knowledge from now on is going to spread like laughter. It will not only be available, it will be contagious.

So the Bible verse around which I will revolve in 2021 is a teaching of Jesus in John 10:10, the second half of the verse: “I have come to give you life to the full.” Some translations follow Jerome’s Latin translation from the 4th century, when he used abundantias: “abundant life.” The Greek adverb here is “perisson.” It has the sense of exceeding the need to be measured and way more than necessary. The Bible uses it to refer to how much God can do (like, you know, a ton), and how much more than a prophet Jesus actually is (picture your Christian summer camp counselor trying to explain this with her arms over her head – like way, way more, you guys).

There are even some things we can do to increase our happiness. We can actually track what is shaping our half-empty-half-full mindset and tilt ourselves in the direction of living the life that Jesus promises.

The first is to pay attention to what actually causes happiness (your intuitions are wrong on this one). Martin Seligman, who holds a PhD from U. Penn in psychology, has named five. I’m changing his terminology, but here are the ideas:

  1. Positivity – the ability to focus on hope and thankfulness
  2. Passion – finding something in which you love to lose yourself, your calling
  3. People – happiness is inextricably tied to loving relationships
  4. Purpose – discovering that your life is part of something greater
  5. Progress – the ability to set reasonable goals and chase after them

I’m going to explore each of those in posts to come. There’s no reason why 2021 has to be a festering of wounds, when it can be a rebuilding of the human heart according to the blueprints of the creator. For my part, I’m not going back to normal. I’m going to chase after abundant life.