Money does not bring happiness, it brings comfort. Happiness does not require money: it needs a sense of purpose and simple pleasures. Money and happiness compete over similar resources. How come so many think they are the same? Can we have both? More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Money buys comfort
If we have money, we can easily buy a big car, a big house, good food, and quality entertainment. With more money, we can buy the best healthcare available. We will get used to all these comforts within days. Now what?
Let us hear the TED lectures. The happiness experts will ask us to meditate and to hunt after new experiences. If we buy too many experiences, we will stop enjoying them and need a detox. Meditation is generally safe and add about 10% to the wellbeing. What next?
The biggest favor we can do to ourselves is finding a purpose to fight for. Some rich people create or contribute to charity organizations. That can be prohibitively expansive, not only in terms of money but also in terms of time and comfort. Sick and poor tend to smell and have a bad temper.
It is reasonable to find self-centered rich people, with basic needs satisfied and annual donations for charitable organizations instead of a true purpose. These people are likely to be depressed.
A noble savage
It is rare but possible to find poor and happy people. Let us try to visualize who they are.
- Committed to a clear purpose with the ability to get immediate feedback for the effort
- They should be doing physical work and not have any serious sickness
- Probably members of a group or movement, maybe of a volunteer organization
- Possibly young and far from home, so that they do not need status affirmation
- Enjoying the simple pleasures of tasty organic food, clean water and amazing sunset in some of the best sceneries a man can find
We get missionaries, teachers/doctors, wildlife preservationists…
These people form a new myth for the noble savage. They are likely to be dirty and smelly, mosquito-bitten, and with no safety net.
Once something bad happens, the lack of money may become an evil.
Possibly, it is easy to be happy in the middle class. The income of a professor or a medical doctor can be comfortable. The purpose of saving lives, teaching kids, developing new tech can be satisfying. The pleasures may include premium coffee in the morning, a glass of wine in the evening, and visit an ethnic restaurant once a week. There is a great journey once a year to anticipate and relieve. The family is supportive, and the coworkers are polite and helpful.
Unfortunately, this blissful middle class is shrinking. People in the middle class do not feel special or successful and then the take risk. Increasingly more people become rich or poor. Almost everybody gets stressed.
It is a bit crazy to think that having more money or more fame will actually make us unhappy. The entire philosophy of consumerism, middle class, and value generation is pro-competition. And this competition is stressful for everybody. The competition is global and almost unavoidable. How is it represented on a global scale?
Search for happiness in rich countries
Depression is an epidemic of rich countries. Poor countries cannot afford depression: people are too busy fighting for survival. In a similar way, countries with most Alzheimer cases are the countries where people do not die from other causes before they are 80 years old.
If we think in terms of Maslow’s pyramid, people need to take care of food and safety. They need to find a social group they belong too and earn their respect. Only then they focus on self-actualization and get depressed. Poor people have other feelings: fear, hunger, envy, anger, despair.
I could bring statistics on obesity, depression, suicide, but I think you do not need it. If you read this text, you probably understand that everything is connected.
Happiest countries and depression rates
Some of the richest countries are also the happiest. Other rich countries are depressed. Here are some happy countries with relevant stereotypes:
- Finland. Extreme cold. Finns remove social distances in saunas. They love sports and are very polite and considerate.
- Denmark. Cold, grayish… Danes are happy because they have low expectations.
- Norway. The people are not very rich, but the country itself is extremely rich and provides extreme social benefits.
- Australia. Lots of natural resources, sun, beaches, sports. It is easy to understand why Aussies are happy. They also tend not to take themselves too seriously.
- Israel. Great food and tech. We live in today and do not let chronic wars disturb our mood.
- Malta. Strong financial sector. Great social benefits. Deeply religious. Almost no crime.
- Costa Rica. Not a reach country. Low corruption, great beaches, and overall positive outlook.
The world happiness report does not measure personal depression. I quote: “Happy people “wouldn’t have the highest smile factor,” he said. “They do trust each other and care about each other, and that’s what fundamentally makes for a better life.”
Interestingly, Americans, Australian and Israeli also smile a lot in their Linkedin photos. Is this smile authentic?
If we check the depression rates, we get a very strange list:
- United States is the absolute champion
- India (with Bangladesh and Pakistan)
Clearly, we would expect Afghanistan to be unhappy both on a state level and on a personal level, which is so. Malta is a happy country with few mental disorders. But Israel and Finland are happy countries, so why so much depression measured? Why we can see very few mental disorders reported in Spain ane Japan?
Significant depression levels will result in suicides. After a bunch of other countries (like Africa and former soviet republics) we get South Korea, India, Japan, Finland, United States. Lower but still high suicide rates in India, Australia, Norway. Average rates of suicide in Israel, Costa Rica, and Brazil. Almost no suicide in Malta.
What’s going on?
Happiness is hard to measure. So in some surveys, people are asked directly about their positive experiences. In other cases, scientists try to measure indexes correlated with wellbeing like life expectancy. A person can have a long life with a reasonable income, personal freedom, and volunteering, and yet be very depressed. A country may also have a huge disparity between people who are content with their lives, and those who are not. In some countries, a depressed person will ask for professional help, while in others the family will try to take care of the person.
Freedom and happiness
I invented and often use a depressing expression: “if you give a person long enough rope, he will find a way to hang himself.” The countries with the highest measured depression are countries with a lot of personal freedom and interpersonal generosity.
What’s the issue with the Finns? Members of the happiest nation on earth are very likely to get prescription pills and if the pills fail they will use the hunting rifle. And this is a country with huge social support. We can blame long winters and vitamin D deficiency…
Americans are addicted to painkillers. Medical doctors feel the need to prescribe drugs that simply would not be administered in other countries. Social support in the USA is not very good, and there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Everybody is super-stressed. A 50-years-old may lose his job and have no serious savings or his spouse may get seriously sick and he may have not medical insurance. Guns kill more Americans in suicides than in robberies, self-defense, murders, and accidents combined.
India is a very free but also a very poor nation with many farmers and very poor infrastructures. A hungry Indian is often also a depressed Indian. A farmer may prefer suicide to death from hunger. Agriculture experts occasionally bring better technologies, but when they fail, lots of farmers die.
What can one do?
I think there are certain ways to be happier, otherwise, I would probably not publish this article. This does not mean I am wise enough to follow my own advice. Basically I suggest everybody to adopt an idealized middle class mentality.
- Minimize consumption. Like having the minimal viable product. Two kids can share a room. The car can be 6 years old, and preferably electric. The food should be rich in fruits and veggies. The idea is not throwing away the stuff we no more need, but finding new ways to make the old stuff serve us.
- Maximize education. As humans, we need to optimize something, and education has almost no side-effects. It is best to collect useful knowledge, but useless information can provide additional perspectives and wonderful metaphors.
- Generate a safety net. Have excess income and invest it wisely.
- Do not form an emotional relationship with money: money is a vehicle for other goals
- Explore spirituality. Formal religion is optional. Visit awesome places, experience music, and arts, love your family and pets. Practice gratitude and forgiveness.
- Have well-defined boundaries. Trust and ethics are crucial. It is best to limit our freedom. Constraints result in greater creativity.
- Career success is inherited. If you cannot live properly, at least provide your children with a fighting chance.