In times of potential economic danger, economists and politicians rely on us to keep spending. This week the European Central Bank is set to introduce quantitative easing, to ward off the dangers of deflation and recession, to try to encourage people to buy and consume more. But while accumulating and spending money may be good for the economy, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that it is not good for us as human beings.
So many of us strive so hard for material success that you might think there was a clear relationship between wealth and well-being. From school onwards, we're taught that long term well-being stems from achievement and economic prosperity - from 'getting on' or 'making it', accumulating more and more wealth, achievement and success.
Consequently, it comes as a shock for many people to learn that there is no straightforward relationship between wealth and well-being. Once our basic material needs are satisfied (i.e. once we're assured of regular food and adequate shelter and a basic degree of financial security), wealth only has a negligible effect on well-being. For example, studies have shown that, in general, lottery winners do not become significantly happier than they were before, and that even extremely rich people - such as billionaires - are not significantly happier than others. Studies have shown that American and British people are less contented now than they were 50 years ago, although their material wealth is much higher. On an international level, there does appear to some correlation between wealth and well-being, partly because there are many countries in the world where people's basic material needs are not satisfied. But this correlation is not a straightforward one, since wealthier countries tend to be more politically stable, more peaceful and democratic, with less oppression and more freedom - all of which are themselves important factors in well-being.
So why do put so much effort into acquiring wealth and material goods? You could compare it to a man who keeps knocking at a door, even though he's been told that the person he's looking for isn't at home. 'But he must be in there!" he shouts, and barges in to explore the house. He storms out again, but returns to the house a couple of minutes later, to knock again. Seeking well-being through material success is just as irrational as this.
Well-Being through Giving
If anything, it appears that there is a relationship between non-materialism and well-being. While possessing wealth and material goods doesn't lead to happiness, giving them away actually does. Generosity is strongly associated with well-being. For example, studies of people who practise volunteering have shown that they have better psychological and mental health and increased longevity. The benefits of volunteering have been found to be greater than taking up exercise, or attending religious services - in fact, even greater than giving up smoking. Another study found that, when people were given a sum of money, they gained more well-being if they spent it on other people, or gave it away, rather than spending it on themselves. This sense of well-being is more than just feeling good about ourselves - it comes from a powerful sense of connection to others, an empathic and compassionate transcendence of separateness, and of our own self-centredness.
In fact, paradoxically, another study has shown that this is one way in which money actually can bring happiness: if you give away the money you earn. This research - by Dunn, Gilbert and Wilson - also showed that money is more likely to bring happiness if you spend it on experiences, rather than material goods. Another study (by Joseph Chancellor and Sonja Lyubomirsky) has suggested that consciously living a lifestyle of 'strategic underconsumption' (or thrift) can also lead to well-being.
So if you really want enhance your well-being - and as long as your basic material needs are satisfied - don't try to accumulate money in your bank account, and don't treat yourself to material goods you don't really need. In an interview last week, Bill Gates stated that rich people have a responsibility to give away their money. But you don't have to be a billionaire to follow his example. Be more generous and altruistic - increase the amount of money you give to people in need, give more of your time to volunteering, or spend more time helping other people, or behaving more kindly to everyone around you. Ignore the 'happiness means consumption' messages we're bombarded with by the media. A lifestyle of generosity and under-consumption may not suit the needs of economists and politicians - but it will certainly make us happier.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity:Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. www.stevenmtaylor.com