By A C Grayling
Would it surprise you to know that if you were twice as rich as you are now, you may not be any happier? The lack of relationship between wealth and happiness has long been common knowledge, and the knowledge itself has long been a source of happiness to moralizers who like the fact that money is not life’s answer.
There are, though, two confusions involved in the idea that anything significant can be discovered by looking for a correlation between wealth and happiness. One concerns the nature of happiness, the other the nature of wealth.
If you could arrange for Britain’s population to make a sudden return to 1987 levels of income and possessions, almost everybody would be unhappy. As wealth increases, so do expectations, and so does being accustomed to the lifestyle that the new level of wealth brings.
For most people it is likely that wealth has to improve in order for their happiness level to remain constant; if their wealth were to decline, so would their happiness.
The important point here is that ”happiness” is too vague and baggy a notion to be truly helpful. It is like an old pair of knickers that has lost its elastic and become over-capacious and shapeless.
Instead of talking about happiness, one should talk about satisfaction, achievement, interest, engagement, enjoyment, growth and the constant opening of fresh possibilities.
Very often the activities that yield these things are challenging, even effortful. A person in the midst of doing something objectively worthwhile might not describe himself as happy – usually he will be too absorbed to notice – and only later will realise that what it is to be happy is to be absorbed in something worthwhile.
If mere happiness were the point, we could easily achieve it for everyone by suitably medicating the water supply. But it has often been well said that the surest way to unhappiness is to seek happiness directly. Instead, happiness comes as a sideline of other endeavours that in themselves bring satisfaction and a sense of achievement.
It is like the dot of light in a dark room that one cannot see when looking directly at it, but notices out of the corner of one’s eye on looking away.
The other confusion concerns wealth. If a person has a million pounds in the bank and never touches a penny of it, or a huge mansion and never occupies it, it is the same as if he had neither the money nor the house. What this shows is that wealth is not so much what one has, but what one does with it.
A man who has a thousand pounds and spends it on a wonderful trip to the Galapagos Islands is a rich man indeed: the experiences, the things learnt, the differences wrought in him by both, are true wealth.
If you would like to know how rich a person is, you need to ask not how much money he has, but how much he has spent.
This idea is associated with the wise teaching that the philosophers and poets of antiquity never tired of repeating: that a rich person is he who has enough.
If his needs are modest and his habits frugal, then so long as his resources provide enough to meet both, he is rich.
But the man is poor who, despite owning millions, restlessly yearns for more because he feels he cannot have enough, and in particular who lacks the things money cannot buy – ah yes, for these unpurchasable treasures can never be left out of the picture: friendship, love, a sound digestion and a reliable, natural ability to sleep at nights, are indispensable to the possibility of happiness, if not directly supplying it.
In thinking about happiness and wealth, one should avoid using the words ”happiness’ and ”wealth”, and think instead of more accurate and more substantial words that denote what one truly thinks these things are.
To mention satisfaction and achievement is to suggest activity of some kind – doing and making, helping, learning, changing – which might seem obvious to most, but is chosen by surprisingly few.
Ruskin tellingly remarked ”a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel”, and this, alas, characterises too many people. The limited surface area of such parcels does not attract much of the golden dust of satisfaction.
The true equation between happiness and wealth is this: that . Unlike wealth in the form of money and possessions, such happiness can never be quantified, only felt; and if one has it, it does not matter if the level of it always stays the same.
• A C Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London