Does wealth really equal happiness?

ANNELI KNIGHT
Last updated 10:27 27/07/2011
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TRUE MEANING: Money can buy happiness but only if you use it well.

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Although happiness is not found in dollar notes or bank transfers, there is a correlation between wealth and contentment - but probably not in the way you might think.

Money can buy happiness but only if you use it well. This is the conclusion drawn by speakers at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in Brisbane recently. Among them were behavioural psychologists, academics, scientists, Buddhist monks and the Dalai Lama.

One of the speakers was Los Angeles documentary maker Roko Belic, creator of the documentary Happy, which was funded by Hollywood filmmaker Tom Shadyac, after Shadyac realised his blossoming wealth was not increasing his happiness.

Belic says: ''Tom is a very successful Hollywood director - he made tens of millions of dollars and he said when he bought his first mansion he was really excited because he thought, now OK, he's there, he has achieved the dream that everyone said would make him happy. And he said that he had this overwhelming feeling as he stood in the foyer of his amazingly palatial house that he was no happier.''

As Shadyac's career progressed he continued to buy bigger houses and boats and planes but one day it struck him that his gardener and his cook had more genuine smiles on their faces than most of his billionaire friends in Hollywood, Belic says.

''There was a depth of smile that he saw in their faces that he could not get out of his head,'' he says.

''And it haunted him because here he was in a culture that was pushing so far and fast and hard in a different direction that was not saying you should be happy if you are tending flowers in somebody else's garden or if you're cooking for somebody else. It was saying you should be happy if you have power or success or independence and [you can] buy anything you want.''

Shadyac came across research that said although the US is one of the richest countries in the world, it is nowhere near the happiest.

And that's when he decided to fund the documentary to explore that question: If it's not money that makes us happy, then what is it?

SENSE OF COMMUNITY

The film, Happy, criss-crossed the globe from the slums of Kolkata to the tribal groups of Namibian bushmen and found that a strong sense of community brings more happiness than personal wealth.

However, a US anthropologist and psychologist from the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology, Dr Robert Biswas-Diener, says it is easy to get swept up in the notion that money is irrelevant to happiness.

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''There is a tendency to romanticise people from materially simple cultures but there is a tradeoff,'' he says.

''I think it would be great to be Amish but I'm also a huge fan of laser surgery if I need it. If you have a choice between Zimbabwe and Canada, take Canada.

''It's not to say everyone in Zimbabwe is miserable but, on average, we know the vast majority of people in Denmark are doing better than virtually everyone in Togo.

''Generally, rich cities are happier. At the group level, money leads to more democracy, more gender equality, higher life expectancy, lower rates of police corruption, more green space and better infrastructure.''

HOW YOU SPEND IT

However, national wealth is a different issue to an individual's relationship with money and that is where it can get complicated.

Biswas-Diener says the issue is not with money itself but with our attitude towards money and the way we spend it.

''It's a story people want to hear, they want to downplay the importance of money because it sounds materialistic,'' he says. ''But money does buy a bit of happiness; money is important to happiness. Money is a catch-all for all the things that money buys.

''That is the caveat: desiring the things money buys is toxic to happiness. Having money is not toxic but wanting money is toxic.''

Biswas-Diener says people who say money doesn't buy happiness might be spending their money on the wrong things and research has shown that spending money on experiences or using money for philanthropic causes brings more happiness than spending money on consumer items.

''Sometimes critics assume money will only be spent on status items like iPhones and laptops,'' he says. ''I hope to make more in the future not because I want a speed boat or a Rolex but because I know my kids are going to college soon, I want to be able to take my grandkids on vacation and I want to fund a charity in Kolkata.''

HAPPINESS THIEF

Biswas-Diener says the ''money doesn't buy you happiness'' story is not exactly true and that the relationship of money to happiness is curvilinear and one that is based on the economic theory of diminishing marginal returns.

''But where does the slope really quit paying you happiness dividends?'' he says. ''It's something kind of low - it's not $1 million. That's not to say there is no more gain at all, it is just a levelling off. If someone makes $80,000 they will be happier than someone who makes $60,000. It's not a huge jump in happiness, it's incremental.''

While more money might bring a slight increase to your level of happiness, it is common for people to be anxious about money and to want more of it. ''I've yet to meet that person that has enough money, I've never heard of such a thing,'' he says. ''There is always the drop of dissatisfaction because you never quite have enough. I always fret a little bit, it is a small thief of happiness.''

CONSUMER TREADMILL

The founder and director of Pathways Health and Research Centre in Brisbane, Professor Paula Barrett, says there is a culture of dissatisfaction in the Western Anglo-Saxon society.

''It's related to the consumerism treadmill: the more you want and the more you earn, the more you discard,'' she says.

''You get tired of whatever it is that you want: the house or the car or the three television sets. There's only a certain amount of time to enjoy them.

''The consumer treadmill says, 'One day I'll be happier when I get something else,' then you get there and you want something else again.

''You spend your whole life working very hard to get all those things but not spending quality time with close relationships.''

HOW TO BE CONTENT

Barrett runs programs to help people build resilience and happiness.

Her program is based upon research that has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and finds that people are happier when they invest their time and energy in having a healthy diet low in sugar; doing at least one hour of exercise seven days a week; spending quality time on meaningful relationships; focusing on loving connections (this might be with a person, animal or through spirituality or nature); and learning to pay attention with all five senses.

''We are the most productive, creative and effective when we take time to do all those things,'' Barrett says.

Shifting your attention away from generating a higher income towards these happiness factors can sometimes bring incidental material success.

''Because those things are the things that make people happy, people actually perform better at their job and produce more and they will be more successful and, therefore, they will probably increase their income,'' Barrett says.

It is even better if you can find a job that you love, she says. ''The best way to earn more money is to find what you're really passionate about and give yourself 100 per cent to that passion,'' Barrett says.

''Most people have jobs they don't really like, then they'll never be that wealthy. People do really well at what they're happy about.''

INNER WEALTH

Matthieu Ricard is a French scientist who shed his material life entirely. He became a Buddhist monk and has since spent more than two decades in Tibet.

He presented a workshop at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference about altruism and happiness and he donates 100 per cent of the royalties from his internationally best-selling books to fund humanitarian projects.

''No one would refuse a double income but you just need to know, whatever you think, it's not going to make you happy without ambiguity,'' Ricard says.

''You can be miserable in a paradise: wealthy, strong, healthy and depressed. Most people spend most time on the outer condition but our control on these conditions is ephemeral and illusory. We rarely acknowledge the inner conditions. The inner conditions are the state of mind, the way we experience the world. A lot of research says you can be full of joy and the outer conditions are not present. It doesn't mean we should be happy with the shack house. It just means they have inner conditions that make them happy: loving, kindness, freedom and inner peace.''

Ricard says it is a privilege to reach a point of contentment where the amount of money you have becomes irrelevant to your happiness.

''Money is a tool for me,'' he says. ''With a hammer you can build or you can destroy. With a can of petrol you can travel or burn a house. Money is a tool - there is nothing wrong with a tool.''

Myths about wealth

The founder of Sydney-based The Happiness Institute, Dr Tim Sharp, says there is nothing wrong with working hard or making money; it is just crucial that people step back and reflect on what they are doing rather than getting lost in a cultural belief that working harder will bring you more money, which will bring you more happiness.

''One of the greatest myths in our society is that happiness will come from more possessions, bigger houses, faster cars, just more stuff,'' Sharp says. ''And that comes from and is propagated and reinforced one thousand times every day by advertising and marketing. That's what those industries are built on: encouraging people to buy more.

''I'm not saying that's bad but I'm encouraging people to stop and think ... working long hours itself and making money is not a bad thing but if happiness is your ultimate outcome measure then there are better things you can focus your time on than revenue generation. The issue becomes: we've only got so many minutes in the day; every extra hour

I spend at work I'm not spending time on other things. The greatest joys are time in nature, time with family and close friends and enjoying things in life like food and exercise.''

The problems arise when people blunder through life blindly and do what they think they should do, Sharp says. ''Maybe a BMW will make me a little bit happier for a bit of time but how much happier will it make me if I spend more time with my wife or see my friends more? We forget about those things and that's problematic. How much are you going to get to enjoy it if you're in the office 70 hours a week or if you're in hospital because you haven't spent time on health and well-being.''

The way you meter out your spending can also affect your happiness, Sharp says. ''One of the related myths is that people can buy happiness through big purchases: a big holiday, a big house,'' he says. ''What the research suggests is if we are going to try and buy happiness, then more frequent, smaller purchases tend to make us happier than bigger ones.''

Taking stock: make happiness a priority

  • Earn it through a job you are passionate about.
  • Take your focus away from earning money and on to other things (such as quality relationships, healthy diet or exercise) and you will be more creative, productive and efficient and might earn more as a result.
  • Spend on experiences rather than ''stuff''.
  • Give some away.
  • Spend on a higher number of smaller purchases rather than a small number of big buys.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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