Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Money doesn't bring you happiness . . ."

Four wealthy Yorkshiremen vacationing on the French Riviera reminisce about how happy they were when they were dirt poor:

Now, Conor Clarke, writing from England, asks, "What Makes Us Happy? Not Jobs.."
Joshua Shenk's Atlantic essay on happiness has gotten plenty of response (see David Brooks in yesterday morning's New York Times), but one thing that I find striking about the piece is how little focus there is on material gains as the right route to happiness. When the doctor in charge of the Grant Study lists the factors that predict happy aging -- education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and employing "mature adaptations" -- there is no mention of career success or even career stability. Relationships matter; incomes don't. This comports pretty well with my general understanding of self-reported happiness studies and gives me a chance to print my second favorite graph in the history of economics:

Clarke points out that though this graph portrays Britain, the same results are found around the world. Even though Britons' (and Americans') material circumstances have been improving, often quite substantially and rapidly for the last 50 years or so, we do not claim to be happier now than we did back then.

It would be a mistake to infer, however, that material sufficiency has no relation to happiness. In 1943, Abraham Maslow promulgated his theory of human "hierarchy of needs," a tier of life conditions that Maslow said are necessary for life itself, at the bottom of the tier, and for human flourishing and happiness, moving up to higher-level needs.

At the bottom, of course, are the needs essential to live at all - food, air, water, sleep and other life-essential things. These are physiological needs shared with any other creature. Above them are human-specific (mostly) needs - safety employment, family, and so on. As the tier rises, the needs become steadily less bodily and more psychological - respect, achievement, creativity, and so forth.

Happiness, to Maslow, resulted from being able to meet the higher-level needs, which was in turn dependent upon meeting the basic type of needs. Persons chronically hungry or fearful of their safety are quite unlikely to describe themselves as happy.

Unless ...

As influential as Maslow's work was and deservedly remains, about the same time he published it a man named Viktor Frankl was developing his own theory. Frankl, though, worked as a captive of Nazi Germany, held in concentration camps, where his whole family died. Building on work he had begun before the war, he used his experiences in the camps to refine a psychotherapy built on the hypothesis that the very fundamental human needs are neither bodily ones nor material ones at all. The basic need is to have meaning and purpose in one's life. That is, Frankl turned Maslow's pyramid upside down and claimed that Maslow's higher needs are actually the most elemental.

Frankl's postwar book, Man's Search for Meaning, was named one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century by the Library of Congress. So it is. And therein lies the key to why people on all points on the economic spectrum can say they are happy, or not.

It is simply this: Material prosperity is not a bad thing (as some of Left would have us believe), but neither is it good, in itself, to be pursued as the object of life (as some on the Right would have us believe). Things, even an abundance of them, cannot make us happy (though severe, ongoing lack of Maslow's basic needs can prevent happiness). Frankl is right: it what we make of life that makes us happy, which is why, even in the direst of physical circumstances in the Nazi camps, he was able to cling to the conviction there was meaning in his suffering. He relates another inmate's insistence that if the camps' survivor could not find meaning in life after the war, there could be no meaning to the camps. To the contrary, Frankl insisted, if there was no meaning in the camps, there could be no meaning to surviving them.

A common theme among the writers of the classics is the unhappy, if not suicidal, wealthy man. One need consider only Charles Foster Kane, subject of Orson Welles' 1941 classic, still ranked by the American Film Institute as the best American movie ever. Stupendously wealthy, surrounded by every material blessing money can buy, Kane nonetheless becomes an embittered old man who finally dies alone, as unhappy as a man can be.

What went wrong in Kane's life? As this clip shows, he suffered from self-inflicted deterioration of the relationships that should have been most important to him, the only ones that could have sustained him and provided meaning for his passion.

That is the key: relationships. And I'll take a look at that in the next installment.

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