Can We Buy Happiness?

It appears you can buy happiness — especially if you are part of the 1%. A recent story in the Atlantic as summarized by Yahoo explains:

In the modern $1.4-trillion luxury economy, bling is out, and high-priced adventures are in. So says a new report from the consultants at BCG, which explores the lifestyle habits of the world’s wealthy based on interviews with roughly 1,000 affluent individuals. Cartier jewelry, Hermes handbags, and Tourneau watches are being eclipsed by exclusive getaways to the Maldives and helicopter skiing vacations in Alaska (which, in case you’re interested, you can book for about $5,750-a-person, all inclusive). Spending on those sorts of mind-bendingly expensive experiences now accounts for more than half of the luxury market and is growing more than 50 percent faster than sales of luxury goods.

The implications of this report are worth considering. For one thing, if true it gives the lie to ancient wisdom that insists that happiness cannot be bought at any price. Going back as far as the pre-Socratics in the West, the thought was that happiness was a function of inner-peace brought about by contemplation of eternal verities: possessions just divert attention away from what really matters. In the New Testament Christ tells his disciples to rid themselves of earthly possessions and follow him. Eastern wisdom also stresses inner peace as the means to true happiness.

In any event, since the sort of happiness discussed in the above-mentioned study is bought at a very high price, it is restricted to the very few. And it is based on simply asking a sample of the rich if they are happy having fun, which is suspect. The implication here is that the rest of us are doomed to be unhappy. I doubt that. I don’t trust what the rich tell us. I doubt their honesty and their perceptiveness. In fact, I side with the ancient wisdom that finds possessions a diversion from what really matters — such things as family and friends and the peace of mind that comes from a life well lived. I take it that was the point of the story, recounted by Herodotus, of Solon’s exchange with Croesus of Lydia. I cannot persuade myself that those who buy trinkets and take trips are doing anything but diverting their attention away from what really matters. Of course if you are rich enough you can keep doing that until the day you die and you will never know the sacrifice you have made — until on your death-bed you realize that you have been running away from yourself your whole life and worshipping a false god.

The study disagrees, as the article goes on to say that Psychology tells us that purchasing experiences can actually make us more content. In general, it’s better to buy up lots of little experiences — going to a series of concerts, or taking regular classes — than pouring our money into one gigantic splurge. But by shifting their spending away from watches and perfume, the rich may have finally figured out a way to turn their money into peace of mind.

While I suspect any claim that starts with words like “Psychology tells us that…” I dare say that buying “lots of little experiences” might indeed lead to contentment, if not happiness. But, as Aristotle reminds us, it’s a question of moderation. For those who can afford the little pleasures, no doubt contentment will follow. But I doubt that those who must go without even the small pleasures of concerts and classes cannot be happy. I have spoken with people who have visited the rag-tag poor in villages in remote parts of the world who insist that the people there are quite happy, indeed some of the happiest people they had ever met. I’ll never know for certain, but I also doubt that those with immense wealth who can afford to spend their lives taking trips and buying new homes and fast automobiles are truly happy. In the end, it is the kind of person we are that determines whether or not we are happy — regardless of how many “things” we own or concerts we are able to attend.

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3 thoughts on “Can We Buy Happiness?

  1. sometimes just waking up with the sun already going, and the thoughts of just the morning coffee and tea is enough to make me very happy inside, actually before the day gets going I like to ponder for just a brief moment and have a inner sense of quiet that only comes in the mornings , a lot easier on my mind as well than thinking , ” Is the new Merrell water proof walking shoe as good as the ad says it is !!

  2. Happiness is subjective and can range from simply contentment to deep inner peace. I’d guess that an individual’s values determine the happiness factor. Born rich, or comfortable with money, and lots of it, may allow someone to be happy and rich. Those of us who have less money, often see the rich as being incapable of being happy or happiness is only available as something to buy. I think most everyone can feel happiness momentarily.
    I’m reminded of some lottery winners, never having been rich, and discovering the pain and curse that comes with the win. Happiness in this case doesn’t equal money, as the individual has no experience with having it.
    Having and spending money should not preclude anyone from being happy. I wish I had more of it, as it would do as you say, buy more small experiences. I’m content = happy to find value in the small things in life, the overlooked or unnoticed by so many. Leading a good life, enriching the lives of others and experiencing a sense of peace is the happiness I’m after. If we think we’re happy, then we are.
    Still, if I had money, I’m sure I would give most of it away, as I share what little I do have now. There are charities such as http://www.FINCA.org which are dear to my heart and I’d relish the opportunity to assist. The elitism, haughty narcissism, hubris and conspicuous consumption that often accompanies big money wouldn’t be qualities I’d like to be associated with. I’d be happy with custom made shoes and some help with my animals. 🙂

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