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Saturday, January 12, 2013

If happy adolescents make wealthy adults, how not to trade money and income for happiness.

Do you have to be rich to live a good life? Religion and philosophy say “No.” The jury though is out when it comes to income because it depends on what one defines the good life to be. On the other hand, will living the good life make you rich? The evidence says “Yes.” But then, what is a good life and why is it important to us?

Get Happy! Credit: Olivander/Flickr.com
A synonym for the good life is well-being or quality of life. Emerson defined this as “the satisfaction of an individual’s values, goals and needs through the actualization of their abilities and lifestyle.” In other words, living a life that moves smoothly; living a happy life. Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Professor Andrew Oswald believe that youths or adolescents who are happier in life, or who have higher life satisfaction, tend to have higher levels of income, are better educated, find work faster and get promoted quicker. Both researchers found that this relationship also exists in siblings of their subjects. It was also concluded that gloomy youngsters or youths with relationship problems perform less when it comes to earning money compared to their optimistic, outgoing peers.

On the other hand, while having a high quality of life or well-being is important and close to happiness, happiness and wealth work paradoxically.

Poor or rich country, Money has a limit when it comes to attaining happiness.

Citizens of the rich and developed countries are on average happier than their counterparts from poor countries. After accounting for education, political freedom and other democratic rights, the above statement has been found to be true. Yet, it does not mean that money can buy happiness. What the findings show is that money and happiness have a positive association, but only to a point.

Robert E. Lane, a political scientist at Yale, argues that happiness is derived from two sources – material comfort (a.k.a money) and social and familial intimacy (a.k.a love). These two sources, paradoxically, are incompatible. Having more money increases your material comfort and enables you to live a more satisfying life, but it systematically weakens social and familial ties by encouraging mobility, commercializing relationships and attenuating the bonds of both the extended and the nuclear family. Citizens of poor countries have strong social ties and live daily with scarcity of money and poverty. Hence, they tend to rate money highly and even little increases in their income can result in significant reported gains in happiness.
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As for those who live in economically developed and richer countries, it has been shown that there is a diminishing return in happiness when the level of wealth crosses a certain stage. This is because earning high income in these countries increases happiness but because of the strong democratic systems and social welfare programs these societies have developed over the years, at a certain point, the expected increase in happiness by earning more and more income becomes a negative – earning more income results in disillusion, social ties are threatened and more money becomes equal to less happiness and more stress.

No wonder people who value money more highly tend to be less happy than those who value love. It is not that love is not important to their lives, but when the urge and inclination for financial achievement becomes a passion and a conditioned reaction, knowing the tipping point, when to stop, becomes an elusive goal. Happiness becomes a commercialized commodity that could be attained only through the media and entertainment industry.

So, then, if Dr. Neve and Professor Oswald argue that living more satisfying lives during one’s adolescent leads to wealthier adulthood, should parents and policy makers take this notice with a pinch of salt since having much wealth will generally lead to lesser happiness for their teens come adulthood?

While money is good, happiness is more surpassing.

The desire to pursue adolescent happiness with the aim of acquiring wealth in later years depends on several factors. One is education. Another is family environment. Motivation for self-improvement and work, along with good health, are also at play. If these factors can be accounted for, it is worth pursuing because money is a good thing and material comfort makes life richer.

It should be noted too that for people with varying incomes, the impact of income on well-being is only an illusion. People with high income do not necessarily have quality time. Also, people with high income tend to be agnostic to religion where more religion is seen in happier people due to the strong social and communal bonds that religion promotes which may not relate necessarily to belief in religion itself.

People care about their “status”, or their relative financial standing with regard to others. Earning high income is a positive thing and should be encouraged. After an income shock, most persons have shown tremendous ability to adjust to the impact of that shock, which is remarkable because without this adaptive capability, there would be much unhappiness and social stress after an economic crisis.

So, income and happiness exhibit positive association. Every country wants its citizens to be happy, to live fulfilled lives, that is why they pursue policies that will enhance the quality of life and well-being of their citizens. This makes them happier. If income doesn’t buy happiness, it can buy a visit to the spa, a warm bath, achievable college degrees and many other material comforts. Our lives would be stressful and unfulfilled if we strive to attain these and are not able to.

The caveat is: at what point in your pursuit of wealth and high income are you trading your happiness for wealth? We should desire that our youths and teenagers pursue lifestyles that makes for materially comfortable adulthood, but while emphasizing moral values and societal virtues above financial pursuits, at what point in this education will we as parents and policy makers go too far? Without happiness, wealth is just a beautiful illusion.

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