A few kind friends emailed me the link to a recent Scientific American article on happiness — just the kind of thoughtful gesture I’m trying to remember to do more often myself.
The article begins by quoting some research that has long interested me. One study asked people whether they’d prefer to earn $50,000 while other people made $25,000, or to earn $100,000 while others made $250,000.
A majority of the people chose the first option — a result that’s often characterized as “surprising.”
The thing that surprises me is that people have such a clear grasp on the relationship between money and happiness.
Studies show that a key factor in this area is how much money you have relative to the people around you. Absolute dollar figures do matter, but comparison matters a lot.
A survey of 16,000 workers in a range of industries showed that people’s reported job satisfaction was less tied to their salaries than it was to how their salaries compared to their co-workers’ salaries.
My mother grew up feeling quite well-to-do in the little Nebraska town of North Platte, because her father had a highly coveted union job as an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad. On the other hand, a friend told me he felt poor growing up in New York City, because he lived on Fifth Avenue above 96th Street.
Relativity figures into my ground-breaking formulation of the question: can money buy happiness?
The answer to that question is, of course, it depends.
It depends on what kind of person you are. (Money means different things to different people.)
It depends on how you spend your money. (There are good ways and bad ways to spend money.)
It depends on how much money you have relative to the people around you. (One person’s fortune is another person’s misfortune.)
The importance of relativity is one reason people didn’t get a huge boost of happiness from the general rise in prosperity in the U.S. over the last few decades. If everyone is better off, people’s relative positions don’t change, people adapt to the changes in conditions, and no one feels “richer.”
As Samuel Johnson explained, “Riches cannot be within the reach of great numbers, because to be rich is to possess more than is commonly placed in a single hand.”
Today I discovered Jennifer Niesslein’s fascinating blog, where she wrote, “To be honest, I was a little freaked out when I first heard about [The Happiness Project] because it’s pretty much the exact same project I undertook: Taking self-help advice to become a better, happier person. But I have to say, I’m a little bit addicted to Rubin’s blog now, and I’m especially struck by how different our takes are on the exact same project. Holy parallel universe!”
I emailed her immediately, because I’d had the same panicky reaction to her book when I read about it in a publishing newsletter. PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY is about “her quest to self-help her way into a better, happier version of herself, applying the media’s most popular advice on issues like clutter, marriage, diet, and spirituality.” Sound a bit familiar?
PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY is coming out in a few months, so she’s far ahead of me. Fortunately for us both, our books are very different in approach, tone, and material used. Judging her blog, her book will be great; I haven’t sold my proposal yet, however, so just have to hope that publishers decide that there’s room in the world for two books in this vein.