Does Wishing You a Happy New Year Make You Really Happier?

We are created to live a happy life. We do everything to boost our happiness and try to find ways to sustain it. People wish us more of happiness in every occasion especially at this time of the year. But will that make us really happier?

Here in America we have faith in hedonistic value system and have focused on material success so much as if it is the topmost source of happiness.If that is the case, happiness should be the monopoly of rich and the poor and those who live simplistically and contently must have an unhappy life.

It is, of course, tempting to think that materialistic progress will enhance our overall level of welfare and promote happiness. However, we are more skeptical about that proposition now than ever before, thanks to the findings of some scholarly researchers showing that a growing number of people in the United States do not necessarily enjoy a more peaceful and worry-free life despite prosperity, and enormous wealth. Fear and anxiety, perpetuated by the milieu and often triggered by the inability to fulfill inflated materialistic expectations, are rampant in the US. According to a recent Gallup poll, the top ten worries in the US are “terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war.” Such malignant feelings are growing and taking over the lives of many Americans.

The resulting social and psychological disorders seem to have become acutely ubiquitous. More noticeably, the often unfounded fears are created by greedy entrepreneurs and injudicious politicians, and are reinforced by mass media and fear mongering marketing schemes. Dubious fears seem to have touched all aspects of life, fears of things that may not even happen, or have indeed an infinitesimal chance of happening. Mental disorders, the offshoot of trepidation and anxiety, seem to have reached alarming proportions in this country. Three out of the best selling prescription drugs in the US, Seroquel,  Effexor, and Lexapro are used to treat depression and have annual sales amounting to about $9,800 million. Most other best selling drugs are used to treat high blood pressure and heart diseases that are mainly aggravated by stress and anxiety. While our fixation on material progress has certainly provided us with more convenient lives, it seems also to have created in us a flawed sense of happiness and social welfare.

The preceding argument reminds me of a cliché and a proverbial question that seems to have no objective answer: Are rich people necessarily happier? Ross Perot, a billionaire businessman and one time presidential candidate once said “Now thanks to the success of my company, I have been financially successful. But I am not one bit happier than I was as a boy in Texas in the Depression. I am not one bit happier than I was when Margo and I drove into Dallas when I got out of the Navy, with everything I owned in the trunk of our car.”

I am not of course rejecting the link between wealth and happiness unequivocally. No doubt, there is a positive correlation between the two as suggested by common sense as well as the findings of many scientific surveys. However, the general consensus is that a positive association between money and happiness is limited and temporary at best. For instance, people who win big sums of money on a TV game show or in a lottery surely display immense impulsive joy. They can be seen in media video vigorously jumping up and down and crying uncontrollably, an understandable facile reaction. However, their money-driven jubilation might be short lived and not permanent. It has been documented that some will eventually shed the vestige of premature euphoria and return to where they were before wining. And, the realities of possessing wealth and its limited guarantee of happiness set in.

Many of us may have heard the adage that money cannot buy happiness. Money per se may not generate long-term happiness because it does not have any intrinsic value–value derived from life-enhancing benefits. However, as most of us living in the real world know, money is extremely useful when trying to obtain sensual pleasure by buying goods and services. Demand for the things that make us happy can be saturated, and after a certain point, additional demand brings no more happiness. Water, for example, is a most vital commodity; it is so vital to our life that we cannot live without it. We consume water for every conceivable use. That is, demand for water is quite satiated, having access to more water does not make us any happier. To make a long story short, material progress may not create social or personal contentment, nonetheless, this does not mean that it is irrelevant or it impedes happiness. Whatever is the strength of the relationship between wealth and happiness, please do not ask an economist to compute the coefficient of correlation between these two. They are humorous enough to calculate it to the nearest integer!

One can also argue sensibly that if rich people are happier, it is not because they have more money. Rather, it is because of what earning money represents socially and personally, human accolades: success in business, personal accomplishment, status, and self confidence. These are the qualities that make rich people happier. Windfall money, like winning the lottery, does not represent any such personal attainments; it is just the upshot of good luck. In addition, if rich people are happier, that is because they can afford high quality basic life necessities ranging from food and shelter to healthcare for themselves and their kids as well as good education that eventually leads to better jobs, higher social status, and a growing circle of rich friends and associates. They can also immerse themselves in an array of leisurely activities that no doubt elevate the level of their happiness. If a rich man happens to live in a Muslim country, he can also afford to have more than one wife.   In light of this, who can resist the claim that nothing makes a man happier than a well diversified portfolio of wives–harem for sure–to fulfill his sexual fantasies. Overall, rich people are generally more satisfied with their lives but there is no solid ground to argue that money is the source; it is rather the availability of what they can acquire with their money.

Happiness often comes at a cost. We strive to achieve economic progress because we equate that with greater welfare. While this may be true to some extent, we should also consider the downside of unfettered economic growth. The social costs that are inflicted upon society as the consequence of production may be too high a price to pay. Consider the external costs of air pollution, environmental degradation, hazardous chemicals, damage to natural wildlife and human health as well as other consequences that flow from continual shallow and greed-based human choices. Such unmeasured, life-altering costs would greatly offset the additional happiness we might gain from material expansion. We usually do not deal with such costs effectively because those who gain from economic prosperity are not necessarily the same people who are harmed by its detrimental consequences.

Similarly, we work hard in the United States, spending many long hours working every day. The average work week for many of us is more than 40 hours. In other words, we spend a great deal of time trying to improve our economic performance and lose our leisure and family time for the sake of producing more output. Going to work itself is often an unhappy necessity, if not the unhappiest of reoccurrences for most of us. For many of us, life is about doing things we don’t necessarily like. So even if economic prosperity adds to our happiness, part of it will be offset by the unhappiness that results in the painstaking process of improving our material performance.

And I have good news for those who are leaving 40’s behind. Happiness is a U-shaped curve with respect to age. At very young age peoples are extremely happy which then slowly but surely diminishes as they get older.  This implies that at certain ages, we become least happy. Then again, the level of happiness starts to rise again. And, guess what the age at which people are least happy? If your answer is 46, you are probably right!

And, I would like to leave you with these precious words I learned from Buddhist teaching; happiness without serenity of soul is just an illusion of happiness. We need to learn how to develop right attitudes and how to maintain a happy sense of acquiescence at the inevitable.  There are always problems; there are also solutions to our problems. If we do not seek a solution to our problem then we deserve to suffer. If there is no solution to our problem, learn how to live with it.

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