What makes us happy?
And how can we make ourselves happier…
Is buying the latest iPhone or super-sized house going to make us happier?
What do you think, and why? Maybe these are questions we should be asking ourselves and talking about together.
For a long time, the best way for countries to improve people’s quality of life was to increase material standards, as the research shows health and happiness improves in the early stages of economic growth. Then after a certain point it doesn’t matter if a developed country gets richer and richer, the relationship between happiness and economic growth plateaus. This is known as the happiness dissociation curve (Figure 1) where developed countries reach a maximum level.
Figure 1: Happiness and average income
However, even though the whole population’s happiness plateaus, within these rich countries, health and social problems are still strongly associated with income. The evidence shows when there are larger levels of income inequality, there are larger levels of health and social problems (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Health and social problems are closely related to inequality among rich countries.
Problems at the bottom of the social ladder including, mental illness, obesity and homicides are more common in unequal societies. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how much money a country makes, when there are larger differences in people’s material wealth, there are larger societal problems.
As part of societal inequality, when income differences are bigger and social distances are further, we place more importance on where we stand compared to others. If someone has a new iPhone 7, we want one too. If someone has a big house, we want one too. People give higher value to what they’re missing. We see these material objects as status symbols and give them more importance in our lives.
The pressure to present our selves in society and keep up with everyone else impacts our personal wellbeing. At the height of material and technical achievements, we find ourselves prone to anxiety and depression and unsure of social perceptions and friendships. Our society is driven to consume and find comfort in over-eating, obsessive shopping, or excessive alcohol and drugs.
Even with all of this wealth and comfort, many of us are often just missing what we don’t have – the company and connection of friends and family. It seems although rich countries have produced affluent societies, they are social failures.
So how can we make ourselves happier?
Increasing material living standards isn’t going to improve our quality of life according to the happiness curve. Instead, the evidence shows reducing inequality is the best way of improving our social environment, increasing our real quality of life in health and happiness.
We get happiness mostly from people. We need companionship.
In developed countries (with people over the poverty line), our satisfaction with friendship, family and community connections, now contributes more to subjective wellbeing compared to our satisfaction with standards of living.
Therefore, we should focus on emphasizing companionship and societal equality instead of money and economic growth. These will make a larger impact on improving our wellbeing compared to the latest iPhone or large house.
Kasser, T (2002) The High Price of Materialism. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Lane, R (2000) The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Wilkinson, R & Pickett, K (2010) The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.