Does Money Buy Happiness? Part II

Chatterbox, following up on the suggestions of several readers, has been continuing his research into the question of whether money buys happiness (see “Does Money Buy Happiness?”).

First, Chatterbox took a look at Robert Frank’s excellent new book, Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess (click here to buy the book). Frank has some fascinating data on how societies, when they become richer, don’t necessarily become happier. “[T]he average satisfaction level reported by survey respondents in Japan remained essentially unchanged between 1958 and 1986,” Frank writes, “a particularly striking finding in view of the fact that per-capita income rose more than five-fold during that period.” This is the “Even Though Janitors Today Live Better Than Henry VIII They Don’t Appreciate It” argument–i.e., when everyone you know has indoor plumbing you take it for granted. Frank essentially endorses H. L. Mencken’s definition of a wealthy man as someone who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.

Several readers pointed out that in concluding that earning more than $75,000 a year can move you from the “pretty happy” to the “very happy” category, Chatterbox may have gotten his causality fouled up. In other words, money doesn’t buy happiness; happiness (that is, a certain level of contentment and sanity) buys money. Could be. But some (admittedly sketchy) data in a pop psychology book that one reader recommended called The Pleasure Prescription (click here to buy the book), by Paul Pearsall, would appear to counter both hypotheses. Pearsall interviewed seven men and four women who each had a net worth of more than $5 million and had responsibility for workforces of more than 500 people. All of them, he says, “suffered from toxic success. They seemed to have done it all, to have it all, yet were cynical, impatient, agitated, and still looking for happiness.” On a scale of 0 to 10, they ranked their happiness at 5.5; according to Pearsall, in most surveys of happiness in Western culture, folks consistently score themselves between 6.5 and 6.8!

What is one to make of this? What Chatterbox makes of it is that the sample’s too small.

Chatterbox would also be remiss if he didn’t mention the Whitehall Study, which is discussed in Frank’s book and also in an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books from last year by Helen Epstein called “Life and Death on the Social Ladder.” The Whitehall Study is a medical survey of British civil servants, and what’s interesting about it is that it found death rates were lower for those in the higher ranks even when factors like smoking and cholesterol were taken into account: “Simply being a senior assistant statistician, rather than chief statistician, increased one’s risk of having a fatal heart attack nearly twofold, even if one led an apparently salubrious life.” Does inequality kill? Back to Japan: Folks there may not be any happier than they were right after World War II, but during the late 1980s Japan had the lowest level of income inequality among workers of any country reporting to the World Bank, and it also had the world’s highest life expectancy. So: Money may not buy happiness, but it does often seem to be a prerequisite, because you can’t be happy if you’re dead.

–Timothy Noah