Different times during the year, Forbes and magazines like it cough up these things. Lists designed to have us gawk and awe at the collective opulence of the richest bodies amongst us. This past week, Forbes released The Forbes 400, a “definitive list of wealth in America, profiling and ranking the country’s richest citizens by their estimated net worths.” It is a list worthy of a second, third, and fourth glance; considering that Americans make up half of the world’s richest 1%, and according to CNN Money, even the poorest 5% of Americans are better off financially than two thirds of the entire world.
So what does this tell us? In an age where material wealth is increasingly being tied to success; where preachers are tycoons; and celebrities atop magazine covers daily advertise the sweetness of luxurious living; it is hard to see how money is not the ultimate source of happiness.
For starters, we know these Americans, who are better-off than everyone else on earth, are by most credible surveys and estimations not the happiest of souls. As a matter of fact, in a first ever happiness index of sorts undertaken by the United Nations and released this past summer, the World Happiness Report, Americans do not crack the top ten of the happiest people on our planet. At the top spots are Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands respectively; nations where collective wealth is the gospel, and not the sort of individualistic wealth mantra which characterizes nation states such as the U.S.
Well, of course, whoever said money does not matter? Bring him so I may damn him to an eternal life of same clothes and same shoes in a house falling apart. We depend on commerce for sustainable and buoyant societies. Economic growth and stability is important in both private and communal life. But what we also know, as echoed by Edward Diener, a renowned psychologist who has extensively studied and researched the subject of happiness, once one’s basic needs are met, wealth barely increases happiness.
I shall go ahead and affirm that what promotes happiness is securing experiences that run counter-intuitive to this self-accumulation culture. Experiences outside of the individualistic self.
Humans are social beings. And humans thrive best when they act in this manner. It is the reason why surveys continue to show nations who openly embrace a “me” mentality ranking lower in happiness to those who have a “us” mentality. You are happier when you spend on others, as opposed to when you spend on yourself. A study conducted by scholars from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School proves this. Subjects, who engaged in higher levels of prosocial spending, showed higher degrees of happiness than those who did more of personal spending, the study found. Altruism does indeed pay.
Furthermore, in a culture that celebrates excesses as much as we have today, activities of our communal existence continue to point toward a different narrative for happiness. All of us are not going to be filthy rich, so, accepting the terms of our happiness and working on it becomes paramount. Well, maybe we have actually figured this out [and I mean folks like me who do not own private yachts or islands in the Caribbean]. Studies have shown that poor people give more than rich people. Data from the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently showed that nationally, in the U.S., households with incomes of $50,000-$75,000 donate on average 7.6 percent of their discretionary income, compared to those with incomes of $200,000 and more, who donate a slight 4 percent. So, if altruism is a predictor of happiness, it seems regular folks understand something some rich folks do not readily understand.
Not too long ago, I thought there were many things I could not SURVIVE without, but then, tough times came…and I found out the many things I could LIVE without. For me, it was that subtle realization that happiness doesn’t live in abundance.