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.