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Research and critical reflection – Money doesn’t buy you happiness. Essay

Money doesn’t buy you happiness. Everyone has heard the statement before and most studies of happiness and well-being generally agree on it. However, even though money does not buy you happiness it is largely agreed that money can be a means to an end. Hence, money cannot buy you happiness, but it can provide you with financial security and well-being. If you asked a poor person if they were happy most will tell you they are not due to living in poor conditions and having poor health. Their need for safety and security outweighs their need for nice things and possessions. So if money does not buy you happiness what does buy you happiness? What are the factors in life that make you happy? One way to address this question could be looking at ones well-being. As such a deeper interpretation of well-being is necessary. When considering the concept of well-being, there are two major approaches, objective well-being, and subjective well-being. Objective well-being looks at how healthy a person is and the access he has to resources. Subjective well-being on the other hand looks at the overall happiness of a person. In the same breath it is also argued that material well-being, that is the things we buy and want, does not lead to our overall happiness. Hence, money doesn’t buy you happiness. (Williams, 2014).

Considering this notion that money does not buy you happiness (Myers & Diener, 1995), Kawachi and Kennedy (2002, p.30 -31) sought out to summarise the main ingredients to happiness in one’s life. They noted sex, ethnicity and age scarcely make you happy. Rather it is the relationships and community you have around you that generates levels of happiness. Furthermore, enjoying one’s work and leisure is highly correlated with happiness. On the other hand, one’s wealth and income does not have a straight correlation with happiness. Some poor people are happy, some rich people are unhappy and vice versa. Nonetheless, millions of people across the globe spend large amount of money consuming things they do not need. I myself fall victim to marketing ploys and consume materialistic things that I do not always need, but want because I believe it will make me fit in more in my community, or make me happier.

People follow fashionable trends and want all the new toys that come out thinking it will make them happy. This need of people to have nice fancy things has previously been coined the “new consumerism”. Back in the day, it meant keeping up with others in your community, if your neighbour got a new flash car, you had to go get one. However, with the popularisation of television, and later on the rise of mass media, “new consumerism” meant people were now competing all over the globe. Furthermore, as we live in a world of inequality in terms of income and wealth, the gap between what we want and what we have largely depends on our income. Schor (1998), referred to this as “the aspirational gap”. If one cannot afford something, he can either be “unhappy” dealing with not having that product/want, or he chooses to take on debt in order to afford it and have it then and there; thus having to work more to cover the debt and the cycle continues. So if we look at happiness as the “difference between what we have and what we want we suddenly become unhappy” (Williams, 2014, p.5).

Largely, I agree with the statement the money does not buy you happiness. By society’s standards I am definitely not a rich man but I consider myself to live a moderately happy life; largely due to the fact that I am healthy, I have good friends and a loving family. According to several scholars (Benin & Nierstedt, 1985, Inglehart, 1990, Myers, 2000) it is indeed our social relationships that generate the highest levels of happiness. With that said, I still consume certain things, materialistic things, and go to certain places in order to construct my social identity. I want things in order to fit in or get praise from my peers. According to many scholars however this does not lead to my well-being but rather to unhappiness. This draws back to the “aspirational gap”, if I cannot afford to look a certain way or buy certain things and keep up with the times do I ultimately become unhappy? Personally I would like to say it does not apply to me, but reflecting back to Schor’s (1998) study, it appears to point in that direction. As such, I do agree with the concept more so as a lot of people around me become unhappy when they cannot afford something they want.

Or become unhappy because they got themselves into debt due to their unnecessary consumptions. Maslow (1943) devised a theory of motivation which attempted to explain the hierarchical nature of people’s well-being. Firstly it is our basic psychological needs like hunger and thirst that we have to satisfy. Next, it is our needs for security and protection, followed by our need for social bonds and love. The last two steps are ones self-esteem and self-actualisation. This is a very hierarchical view which means once a certain level has been satisfied one seeks to satisfy the next until you reach to the top – self actualisation. This will explain why people become unhappy when they cannot afford something – reach self-actualisation. Moreover, identities are fluid. I constantly consume new trends, go to new places, and change my habits to fit society’s norms. Social psychology attributes this to people’s nature to conform. One study by Asch (1952, cited in Bond & Smith, 1996) shows the tendency of people to conform to the majority even when the outcome is clearly wrong. I agree with this as I buy certain clothes and go to certain places because I want to fit in with my surroundings.

Zaichkowsky (1994) claims that peoples involvement with a product depends on a person apparent relevance of a product based on his inherent needs and values. Hence my values stem from my surroundings and my need for a product comes from my need to fit in to my surroundings. A lot of the above-mentioned concepts discussed were first investigated after WWII and throughout the 20th century. However, as the world is constantly evolving and changing do these outlooks on happiness and well-being still apply today? Have they gotten any better or worse? Early studies showed an increase in mental disorders and divorces throughout the late 20th century, as well as the increase need of people for bigger and better things. A study by Helliwell, Layard, and Sachs (2012) found that on average rich people are happier than poor people. However, they found that a country’s economic growth does not indicate an increase in the overall happiness of its people. This is simply due to the fact that once people reach a comfortable/secure level of income; further increase of it does not generate higher levels of happiness.

Moreover, they found unemployment is highly correlated with low levels of well-being, whilst being employed – and satisfied with your job – was correlated with higher levels of well-being. Finally, they noted in Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, love and belonging come just after basic physiological and safety needs. Clearly, the sources of individual happiness include the set of social interactions through which individuals are interconnected.” (p.70). The aforementioned trends discussed appear to be in line with the current state of New Zealand. Helliwell et. al. (2012) found New Zealand ranked as the 13th happiest country in the world. This was attributed due to a low unemployment rate (6.2%), divorce number down (stats.govt.nz), and ranking high on education as well as freedom. (Helman, 2013). However, when looking at the top 50 richest countries in the world (aneki.com) New Zealand does not even make an appearance.

However, it is safe to assume that new consumerism and the “aspirational gap” still apply to New Zealand as the countries spending ($2,578 million) is higher than its GDP ($211,678 million). (stats.govt.nz). It certainly appears that money does not buy you happiness. Rather being poor is correlated with low levels of well-being. Money in itself can provide a person with security, but increased income does not appear to have an effect on overall happiness. Looking at Maslow’s theory, a person could have all the money in the world but if they are alone and do not have a loving community of friends and family to share it with they are almost always going to be unhappy. Rather, happiness is determined by a large number of factors with an emphasis on basic needs such as food and water, as well as friendships and belonging to a loving community. Consumption of materialistic objects and the aspiration for more money negatively affects our well-being.

Benin, M.H. and B.C. Nierstedt: 1985, ‘Happiness in single- and dual- earner families: The effects of marital happiness’, job satisfaction and life cycle, Journal of Marriage and the Family 47, pp. 975–984. Bond, R. & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: a meta-analysis of studies using asch’s (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin, 119(1), 111–137. Maslow, Abraham H. 1943 “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological Review, 50: 370-396. Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2012). World Happiness Report. Centre for Economic Performance. The Earth Institute Columbia University. Helman, C. (2013). The world’s happiest (And Saddest) countries. – http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2013/10/29/the-worlds-happiest-and-saddest-countries-2013/ Inglehart, R.: 1990, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ). Myers, D.G.: 2000, ‘The funds, friends and faith of happy people’, American Psychologist 55(1), pp. 56–67. Myers, D. G. & Diener, E. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological Science, 6(1), 10–19. Offer, A. (2006). The challenge of affluence: self-control and well-being in the United States. Williams, J. (2014) Consumption and Well-being. Chapter 12. P. 104 – 127. Zaichkowsky, J. L. (1994). The personal involvement inventory: reduction, revision, and application to advertising. Journal of Advertising, 23(4), 59–69.

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