Nobody Can Buy it for You

Money can’t buy happiness. Beyond minimum levels, people do not become happier as their countries get richer. Studies show, however, that those who have relatively more money compared to their peers tend to be happier, no matter what the general level of wealth. Maybe everybody has got to have somebody to look down on. Maybe we feel threatened by the success of others because we are just big bipedal apes we still see our relative status in Darwinian terms. Or maybe knowing that we have earned what we got has something to do with it.

Don’t underestimate the power of envy & resentment (people often dislike those who do better than they do) but don’t think that there is no more to life than greed and material considerations. I attended a good talk at AEI discussing the morality of free enterprise.

Arthur Brooks, the speaker, made several good points, such as a majority of Americans still favor free enterprise and smaller government despite all the economic setbacks of the past couple years. But the most interesting part of the discussion was when he talked about earned success.

Brooks mentioned the studies I alluded to up top about how people feel good about their own success mostly in relation to others, i.e. the rich are happier, but then he took the numbers apart. It is not being rich that counts; it is the idea of earned success. People need to feel that they have done something useful to get what they have got. And it really doesn’t have that much to do with money.

Money & relative status just tend to correlate with the feeling of earned success because those are often the rewards of earning. But correlation is not causality. People engaged in what they consider a good cause or good work also can achieve the feeling of earned success even if it doesn’t pay well. Satisfaction is common among skilled craftsmen, who use their skills to create something special. People often report more satisfaction working to achieve something than in the achievement itself. We want to fight the good fight and prove our character.

Brooks cited studies showing that lottery winners didn’t win long-term happiness along with their Powerball millions. After the euphoria of the first few days, they drift back to their previous levels of happiness, only with a little less joy. Unhappy lottery winners is a cliché and maybe it says more about the type of people who “invest” heavily in lottery tickets than it does about winning. But Brooks also mentioned studies that looked at people who came into unexpected inheritances. These people were presumably a different group but the results were the same. This makes sense anecdotally. Paris Hilton has piles of money, but she doesn’t seem to have much soul. You can have piles of money and still know you are not worth very much and that hurts.

All human civilization is based on reciprocity. We cooperate together because we are better off when we help each other. Our primitive ancestors learned that before we were even fully human. If I share with you when I have a successful hunt, you will share with me when I don’t. Reciprocity doesn’t have to be perfectly symmetrical. Good parents get joy from giving to their children w/o the reasonable expectation of ever recouping their investment. Most of us leave tips in restaurants even in places we will never return. Most of us like to be generous. But we do these things with the implicit expectation that there will be some kind of balance and most of us hate “free riders,” people who give less than they should and try consistently to sponge off others. Among our primitive ancestors, such shirking was easy to detect, and consistent shirkers might end up smilodon lunch. Reciprocity was an evolutionary plus. The idea of reciprocity is programmed into our cultural DNA and maybe our actual DNA. Good people feel an obligation to return good for good. Those who don’t care about these things we call sociopaths.

That is probably why earning your own way is important, why nobody really likes equal outcomes for unequal effort and why you cannot buy self respect. You can achieve monetary success through luck, dishonesty or the kindness of strangers, but unless you feel you earned it, it won’t buy you happiness.