Are They Related?

There is very little correlation, according to a recent study:  “happiness does not increase when a country’s income increases.”

In the beginning of a country’s rise out of backwardness and poverty, more wealth does make a difference.  But, citing surveys from Chile, China and South Korea, the economist Richard Easterlin points out: “In these countries, per capita income has doubled in less than 20 years but overall happiness does not seem to have followed the same path.” (See The Guardian, “Happiness Doesn’t Increase with Growing Wealth of Nations, Finds Study.”)

Economists are surprised, because GNP (Gross National Product) has long been thought the best indicator of human welfare.  More GNP generally means more money for most people, and more money improves the quality of life, and that means happiness.

But, perhaps, the survey suggests that works to make you happy only if those around you do not share in your good fortune.  General prosperity may fail to enhance individual contentment.  Perhaps it is a matter of being aware of your advantage, not that you need to get the highest salaries and bonuses or be the object of envy.  Maybe, individual goals and aspirations vary so much it is impossible to generalize.  Maybe one has nothing at all to do with the other.

Freud was well aware that economic success did not make people happy.  Most psychoanalysts and therapists today would agree.  The founder of psychoanalysis thought only the realization of a deep childhood desire could provide such satisfaction.  But today there are many different points of view on the subject, even among analysts.

An additional problem is that people are very poor reporters of their own states of mind.  They will usually tell you want they themselves want to believe.  If you want to know if someone is really happy or not, you have to catch him or her in the act of happiness to know for sure.  Being happy or acting happy are more reliable indicators than thinking too much about it.

But professional therapists also know that the more important question is often not what makes people happy so much as what prevents them from being happy.  Poor self-esteem, often a legacy of an unhappy childhood, undermines all feelings of success.  Hunger and cold make it harder to relax and enjoy one’s experience.  Insecurity and failure to engage one’s work, even if one is good at it and well-compensated, keeps one from being satisfied.  Anxiety – no matter what the cause – infiltrates all our perceptions and feelings, and brings us down.

Economists can probably hope to measure how well our basic needs for security and health are being met in any given society, and if those are reasonably OK my guess is that people will tend to find the happiness they seek.  Most of us want to enjoy life, spend time with our children, play at sports, sing, dance and travel.

If we can do those things without dread, the amount of money we have is irrelevant.