“…but it can get you a better class of enemy” (Spike Milligan, 1918-2002).
The argument about whether or not money makes you happy rumbles on (see these PPND articles about Money and Happiness by Sherri Fisher, A Rich Man’s World by Bridget Grenville-Cleave, and Positive Psychology and Social Entrepreneurship by Giselle Nicholson). On Monday, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that Professor Richard Layard, Labour peer and eminent economist turned Happiness Tsar, got his wake-up call when he realized that over a certain point (quoted as being $20,000 per year), money does not make you very much happier. Of course we now know that the argument is a bit more complicated than that.
As North, Holahan, Moos and Cronkite (2008) point out, very little longitudinal research has been carried out on the relationship between income and well-being, and what has been done has rarely exceeded 1-2 years (Easterlin, 2004). In addition, we have to take into account the connection between happiness and values. Oishi et al (1999) showed that extrinsic values (e.g., power) or intrinsic values (e.g., benevolence or self-direction) were not associated with lower and higher well-being per se; what mattered was whether one’s activities were value-congruent. This suggests that pursuit of wealth, social status, and prestige can bring happiness, provided one’s values are aligned.
If we take the view that it’s OK for each individual to decide what makes him/her happy, and if his/her values are right in that “self-enhancement” space (Peterson, 2006, p. 182-3), are we’re saying that s/he should be allowed to pursue wealth and status goals come what may? Are all routes to subjective well-being OK? If not, who decides? And how can we advocate positive psychology principles to others, yet in our own lives continue to look for fame and fortune?
A partial answer may come from the New Economics Foundation: at our MAPP class last week we were fortunate to have Nic Marks talk to us about happiness and sustainable development. He presented NEF’s One Planet Living model, which sheds some light on the previous dilemma. In short, all routes to happiness are not OK; we have to take into account the effect of our lifestyle on other people and on the planet in general (see articles here, here, and here by Giselle Nicholson).
So back to the original North et al (2008) study of 274 married adults across a ten-year period. This showed that family social support (as measured by cohesion, expressiveness and absence of conflict) is substantially associated with happiness even after controlling for income, and that change in family social support is positively related to change in happiness, whereas change in family income is not.
The research suggests that focusing on improving your family relationships is more likely to increase your happiness than focusing on earning more money. But how many of you would give up the chance to earn $1,000 working on the weekend in favor of spending the same time with your family? It requires a lot of self-discipline to do this. Instead of justifying working on the lines of “we could spend that money on buying a new [insert name of latest consumer good here]”, you’d need to spend that time with your family mindfully, and not regret the lost opportunity all weekend.
Some simple but effective activities to improve family social support, suggested by Frisch (2006) include:
- The Favor Bank – building up a metaphorical bank account of positive emotions by doing small favors for the people we care about
- Making Conversation – a simple skill of pro-actively engaging in conversation, finding out what’s going on in our partner’s or children’s lives
- Night on the Town – committing to spending one night each week or month with partner to re-affirm loving feelings
- Take a Letter 1 – writing an uncensored letter to the person you’re in conflict with, sharing your inner-most thoughts and feelings. NB You never share the contents of this one with anyone else, it’s entirely personal
- Take a Letter 2 – writing a letter with the aim of helping the relationship grow and flourish, rather than to hurt the other person. Openly acknowledge your feelings and make a request for how you want behavior to change (be specific), but do so in a considerate manner.
Easterlin, R.A. (2004).The economics of happiness. Daedelus, 133, 26-33.
Frisch, M. B. (2006) Quality of Life Therapy: Applying a Life Satisfaction Approach to Positive Psychology and Cognitive Therapy. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.
North, R.J., Holahan, C. J., Moos, R.H. & Cronkite, R.C. (2008). Family predictors of happiness: a 10-year perspective. Journal of Family Psychology, 22 (3), 475-483.
Oishi, S., Diener, E., Suh, E. & Lucas, RE. (1999). Added value as a moderator in subjective well-being. Journal of Personality, 67 (4), 157-184.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Image: Shelly S