We live in troubling times. After decades as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, Americans can feel their wealth slipping away from them. But worrying about wealth might be counter productive. Until recently, the average American’s buying power was increasing steadily, up to two and a half times what it was 50 years ago—but happiness has hardly increased at all. Why do we strive for wealth if we don’t know how to convert it into happiness?
Scientists have several theories to explain this apparent paradox. First of all, we tend to quickly adapt to the changes in our lives. We strive for the things that will make us happier, but once we achieve them our happiness quickly returns to our natural set point, and so we find ourselves on a “hedonic treadmill,” always in pursuit, but never quite reaching our goal.
Increased wealth also brings more choices. And researchers have found that having more choices is not always a good thing. More options to choose from leads to more stress in every decision we make and more regret when we consider all of the options we didn’t take.
Another theory is that wealth doesn’t bring happiness if everyone becomes wealthier. It is only relative income or individual status that has a more lasting effect. In other words, getting a new BMW will only make you happier if all your neighbors are still driving their Hyundais.
Robert Biswas-Diener is a psychologist who has researched some of these theories. But this is not your typical psychologist running experiments on college students from a university laboratory. Biswas-Diener, who is known as the “Indiana Jones” of psychology, takes his research to the far reaches of the world including Kenya, India, and Greenland, not in search of archaeological treasures, but in a quest for the roots of human happiness.
To better understand hedonic adaptation, he travelled to India to spend time with the poorest people in one of the poorest cities in the world. He went looking for misery in the homeless, the sex workers, and the slum-dwellers of Calcutta. And he did find misery—at this level of poverty there is a steep drop in life satisfaction (both as compared to those in wealthier nations and as compared to the middle class in Calcutta)—but not as much as you might imagine.
The misery found in the slums was also accompanied by some surprising pockets of happiness. Despite their poverty, people enjoyed spending time with their families, sharing a meal for example. They had rewarding social relationships, a sense of meaning around their spiritual or religious practices, and generally felt good about themselves. Biswas-Diener’s research shows that happiness is complex. Wealth does play a role, but one can be happy without it.
Ironically, there is a lot we can learn from the poorest people in the world. The ways they find happiness in the absence of wealth can give us some clues about how to avoid getting stuck on our own hedonic treadmill. Here are some new ways to think about your own relationship with wealth and happiness:
1. Focus on what you have and not what you lack. Even people at the lowest end of the economic totem pole, while they are dissatisfied with their economic status, manage to experience a great deal of happiness and joy from family, relationships, religion, and other aspects of life. Focus on the parts of life that bring joy rather than dwelling on problems and unfulfilled desires.
2. Use your money to buy experiences rather than things. Research shows that we adapt more quickly to material things than we do to experiences. A new car will make you happy as you’re driving off the lot but the feeling won’t last. But a great family vacation can provide experiences and memories that you will cherish for years to come.
3. Pursue meaning, not happiness. Happiness as a goal can seem like an unattainable mirage. Think instead about pursuing what is meaningful to you. Happiness is not on sale at the mall. It is found in the connections between people and in the exploration of the great questions of life.
Like pursuing happiness, a pursuit for meaning does not necessarily lead to a conclusion. But instead of disappointment and regret along the way, we find learning and growth. “While the poor of Calcutta do not lead enviable lives,” said Biswas-Diener, “they do lead meaningful lives.” In our society, it is easy to get caught up in the consumer side of happiness, but meaning costs less…and the happiness might come anyway.