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Why having more no longer makes us happy

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The formula of human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy. So why is the old axiom suddenly turning on us?

By Bill McKibben Posted Apr 2, 2009

That’s where things are now changing dramatically: Researchers from a wide variety of disciplines have started to figure out how to assess satisfaction, and economists have begun to explore the implications. In 2002 Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics even though he is trained as a psychologist. In the book Well-Being, he and a pair of coauthors announce a new field called “hedonics,” defined as “the study of what makes experiences and life pleasant or unpleasant. … It is also concerned with the whole range of circumstances, from the biological to the societal, that occasion suffering and enjoyment.”

If you are worried that there might be something altogether too airy about this, be reassured — Kahneman thinks like an economist. In the book’s very first chapter, “Objective Happiness,” he describes an experiment that compares “records of the pain reported by two patients undergoing colonoscopy,” wherein every 60 seconds he insists they rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 10 and eventually forces them to make “a hypothetical choice between a repeat colonoscopy and a barium enema.” Dismal science indeed.

As more scientists have turned their attention to the field, researchers have studied everything from “biases in recall of menstrual symptoms” to “fearlessness and courage in novice paratroopers.” Subjects have had to choose between getting an “attractive candy bar” and learning the answers to geography questions; they’ve been made to wear devices that measured their blood pressure at regular intervals; their brains have been scanned. And by now that’s been enough to convince most observers that saying “I’m happy” is more than just a subjective statement. In the words of the economist Richard Layard, “We now know that what people say about how they feel corresponds closely to the actual levels of activity in different parts of the brain, which can be measured in standard scientific ways.”

Indeed, people who call themselves happy, or who have relatively high levels of electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain, are also “more likely to be rated as happy by friends,” “more likely to respond to requests for help,” “less likely to be involved in disputes at work,” and even “less likely to die prematurely.” In other words, conceded one economist, “it seems that what the psychologists call subjective well-being is a real phenomenon. The various empirical measures of it have high consistency, reliability, and validity.”

The idea that there is a state called happiness, and that we can dependably figure out what it feels like and how to measure it, is extremely subversive. It allows economists to start thinking about life in richer (indeed) terms, to stop asking “What did you buy?” and to start asking “Is your life good?” And if you can ask someone “Is your life good?” and count on the answer to mean something, then you’ll be able to move to the real heart of the matter, the question haunting our moment on the earth: Is more better?

4. If we’re so rich, how come we’re so damn miserable?

In some sense, you could say that the years since World War II in America have been a loosely controlled experiment designed to answer this very question. The environmentalist Alan Durning found that in 1991 the average American family owned twice as many cars as it did in 1950, drove 2.5 times as far, used 21 times as much plastic, and traveled 25 times farther by air. Gross national product per capita tripled during that period. Our houses are bigger than ever and stuffed to the rafters with belongings (which is why the storage-locker industry has doubled in size in the past decade). We have all sorts of other new delights and powers — we can send email from our cars, watch 200 channels, consume food from every corner of the world. Some people have taken much more than their share, but on average, all of us in the West are living lives materially more abundant than most people a generation ago.

What’s odd is, none of it appears to have made us happier. Throughout the postwar years, even as the GNP curve has steadily climbed, the “life satisfaction” index has stayed exactly the same. Since 1972, the National Opinion Research Center has surveyed Americans on the question: “Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” (This must be a somewhat unsettling interview.) The “very happy” number peaked at 38 percent in the 1974 poll, amid oil shock and economic malaise; it now hovers right around 33 percent.

And it’s not that we’re simply recalibrating our sense of what happiness means — we are actively experiencing life as grimmer. In the winter of 2006 the National Opinion Research Center published data about “negative life events” comparing 1991 and 2004, two data points bracketing an economic boom. “The anticipation would have been that problems would have been down,” the study’s author said. Instead it showed a rise in problems — for instance, the percentage who reported breaking up with a steady partner almost doubled. As one reporter summarized the findings, “There’s more misery in people’s lives today.”

This decline in the happiness index is not confined to the United States; as other nations have followed us into mass affluence, their experiences have begun to yield similar results. In the United Kingdom, real gross domestic product per capita grew two-thirds between 1973 and 2001, but people’s satisfaction with their lives changed not one whit.

Japan saw a fourfold increase in real income per capita between 1958 and 1986 without any reported increase in satisfaction. In one place after another, rates of alcoholism, suicide, and depression have gone up dramatically, even as we keep accumulating more stuff. Indeed, one report in 2000 found that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s — our new normal is the old disturbed.

If happiness was our goal, then the unbelievable amount of effort and resources expended in its pursuit since 1950 has been largely a waste. One study of life satisfaction and mental health by Emory University professor Corey Keyes found just 17 percent of Americans “flourishing,” in mental health terms, and 26 percent either “languishing” or out-and-out depressed.

5. Danes (and Mexicans, the Amish, and the Masai) just want to have fun

How is it, then, that we became so totally, and apparently wrongly, fixated on the idea that our main goal, as individuals and as nations, should be the accumulation of more wealth?

The answer is interesting for what it says about human nature. Up to a certain point, more really does equal better. Imagine briefly your life as a poor person in a poor society — say, a peasant farmer in China. (China has one-fourth of the world’s farmers, but one-fourteenth of its arable land; the average farm in the southern part of the country is about half an acre, or barely more than the standard lot for a new American home.) You likely have the benefits of a close and connected family, and a village environment where your place is clear. But you lack any modicum of security for when you get sick or old or your back simply gives out. Your diet is unvaried and nutritionally lacking; you’re almost always cold in winter.

In a world like that, a boost in income delivers tangible benefits. In general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 income per capita. That’s a useful number to keep in the back of your head — it’s like the freezing point of water, one of those random figures that just happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet. “As poor countries like India, Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil, and South Korea have experienced economic growth, there is some evidence that their average happiness has risen,” the economist Layard reports. Past $10,000 (per capita, mind you — that is, the average for each man, woman, and child), there’s a complete scattering: When the Irish were making two-thirds as much as Americans they were reporting higher levels of satisfaction, as were the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch. Mexicans score higher than the Japanese; the French are about as satisfied with their lives as the Venezuelans.

In fact, once basic needs are met, the “satisfaction” data scrambles in mind bending ways. A sampling of Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, and are only a whisker above Swedes taken as a whole, not to mention the Masai. The “life satisfaction” of pavement dwellers — homeless people — in Calcutta is among the lowest recorded, but it almost doubles when they move into a slum, at which point they are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations. And so on.

On the list of major mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up. Our single-minded focus on increasing wealth has succeeded in driving the planet’s ecological systems to the brink of failure, even as it’s failed to make us happier. How did we screw up?

The answer is pretty obvious — we kept doing something past the point that it worked. Since happiness had increased with income in the past, we assumed it would inevitably do so in the future. We make these kinds of mistakes regularly: Two beers made me feel good, so ten will make me feel five times better. But this case was particularly extreme — in part because as a species, we’ve spent so much time simply trying to survive.

As the researchers Ed Diener and Martin Seligman — both psychologists — observe, “At the time of Adam Smith, a concern with economic issues was understandably primary. Meeting simple human needs for food, shelter and clothing was not assured, and satisfying these needs moved in lockstep with better economics.” Freeing people to build a more dynamic economy was radical and altruistic.

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  • Kary

    Maybe you are focusing too much on the material "things" and not enough on other factors such as both parents working, children moving far from home for jobs, the loss of the nuclear family. One of your highest happiness ratings was in 74, at the end of the Vietnam crises. Fewer people were worried about husbands and sons and the draft taking their family members. You mention the most wealthy Americans are on the same happiness level with the Amish. I would argue they have both attained a satisfaction in their life by living up to their personal desire or self actualization. This article seems biased to produce a result against materialism. I think happiness comes from freedom to make choices in your own life. When outside forces inflict their will on your choices, life becomes less rewarding.

  • I don't necessarily agree that the Little House on the Prairie years were an ideal for Americans (loving that pastoral myth will bite us in the keester), but I hear you on the general point of this post. I certainly see the unhappiness of people escalating as they retreat into isolation. Can't help but see the increasing attachment and obsession with animal pets as a symptom of this social decay. And I've got to take umbarrage with Kary – I think too many choices makes people especially miserable. There is a link between multiplicity of choice and depression, and our society is showing that depression every day. Choice is great, but too much choice…disaster!

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