Sign saying “you can’t buy happiness but you can buy pizza and that’s kind of the same thing”

Research… shows that materialism is “toxic” for happiness, that the more importance we place on money and possessions, the more strained our relationships tend to be, the lower our sense of self-worth, and the more fleeting our happiness.1

I have been reading Reclaiming the Sacred, by Jeff Golden, which makes a case for the things that money can’t buy. At least, that is what it hinted it would do in it’s opening pages. I’ve only just reached that part after having traveled through several chapters where the author supplies academic study statistics on happiness, particularly, how much money a person needs to maximize their happiness.

It will surprise none that money is not identified as the key to happiness in this book. What is surprising is how little effect it has on happiness. For the truly impoverished, whom the book suggests have less than $10K/person/yr income, on average, in the United States, any increment in income brings a substantial increment in happiness. Once the $10K/person/yr threshold is crossed, further increase in income brings a marginal increase in happiness. When the threshold of $30k/person/yr is reached, additional income brings no increase in happiness.

To recap:

  • $0K-$10k/person/yr = big increase in happiness with any increment in income.
  • $10k-$30k/person/yr = small increase in happiness with any increment in income.
  • More than $30K/person/yr = no increase in happiness with any further increment in income.

The happiness amount varies from individual to individual and from region to region. I live in the NYC metropolitan area, so my thresholds probably skew up a bit over other areas of the country. On the other hand, I am also the kind of person who doesn’t need that much materially, so it is less for me than for some.

Still, these are, to me, astonishing figures. I would guess that a lot of us believe we would be quite a bit happier with any increment beyond $30K/person/yr but the studies say nope, not the case.

Another interesting study finding is that having children does not make people much happier than they are without children, Sometimes not at all. So much for the bundle of joy concept. And yet most of us feel compelled to have children, are mostly not sorry that we did, and are sorry on some level if we didn’t.2

In Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher juxtaposes the capitalist approach to labor with the Buddhist approach to labor.

The capitalist approach to labor:

… consider(s) “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour” and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.3

The Buddhist approach to labor:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence… the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.4

As I review my own situation, I am grateful. It appears to me that my wife and I have landed in the sweet spot economically for maximizing happiness, at least as suggested by the happiness/income ratios above. We have a modest but comfortable house. A yard with room to grow things and let the dogs run. A little bit more than enough income, thanks to my wife’s traditional pension, social security and some savings. There certainly are some things that more money could do and my wife might be a little bit happier if we could do some of them, but she is generally happy now. We spend lots of time together, read, write, go for daily walks, sit in local cafes, cook, pursue our interests, have dinner with friends, attend yoga classes, tune ourselves into the beauty around us.

We are fortunate. We have achieved a good retirement. One wonders though, what life might be like if this kind of arrangement could be had all the way through? If we pursued Buddhist economics rather than capitalist economics. I suspect we’d be way less stressed, have fewer children, consume much less, have much less impact on the planet, fight fewer wars, be less interested in guns, laugh and smile a lot.

Yes please.


  1. Golden, Jeff, Reclaiming the Sacred. location: 115, ref-5377 ↩︎

  2. Does this mean that happiness is not really the point, just a bonus if it happens? Is it really about getting your genes into the next generation, happiness be damned? That might explain the desire for influence and power. ↩︎

  3. Schumacher, E. F., Buddhist Economics↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎