Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank, began chiding world leaders a couple years ago to give up wealth as the central metric of progress. GDP couldn't capture all the complexities of modern society, he said. A "comprehensive measure of well-being" would be better.
But what if he was wrong? New research shows that people just might prefer money to happiness, reports the Daily Mail.
Economists at Cornell University offered more than 2,500 people a choice between a job that paid £50,000 ($81,425) with "reasonable hours," allowing them to have a full night's sleep, and a more heavy-duty position with "unusual hours," permitting them just six hours of shut-eye, but compensation to the tune of £90,000 ($146,555).
The majority of respondents chose the well-paid job with the crummy hours, even though they acknowledged that it would make them less happy.
Common wisdom says that more money brings higher satisfaction. It also says: more money, more problems. But the first point tends to stick more, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. In the World Values Survey's happiness index, rich Scandinavia ranks high, but so does decidedly less-rich Latin America.
Money is an imperfect proxy for well-being and, in fact, often dampens the spirit. When a country transitions from general subsistence-level poverty to middle-income status, the happiness of the population leaps, the WVS researchers found. But any increase above that leads to hardly any change in the level of well-being. While wealth might perk a person up, it usually comes with a greater desire for material goods, what the WVS researchers call a "happiness suppressant."
Yet people still pick the cash.
Because they want the status of the higher-paid job, the Cornell researchers found, and the greater sense of purpose that comes with doing more generously compensated work. And in the more selfless of the responses, people said that the larger paycheck would make their families happier.
So while the better-paid job might lessen the well-being of that sleep-deprived individual, it maximizes the happiness of the family as a whole.
These results challenge the increasingly widespread logic that personal happiness is the individual's ultimate goal, a logic propagated by the "happiness industry" through life coaches, literature ("The Happiness Advantage," "The Art of Happiness," "The Happiness Hypothesis," "Happiness: a Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skills"), and mood-altering chemicals (Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro).
The implications aren't just philosophical and psychological, but political too. "Our research suggests that if governments choose to design policies to maximize happiness measured in their surveys, they might impose policies that people would not want for themselves," Alex Rees-Jones, one of the PhD students who authored the study, told the Daily Telegraph.
Sure enough, several countries, heeding Stiglitz's words, are measuring their populations' subjective satisfaction to better understand and guide development.
We are trapped in a "cult of figures," said French president Nicolas Sarkozy, when he announced a Gross National Happiness measure.
Well-being, David Cameron said, when he became the British conservative leader in 2005, is one of the "central political issues of our time." "It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money," he said, "and it's time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB -- general well-being."
Certainly, there's more to life than money. But despite the counsel of certain economists and politicians, there also seems to be a lot more to life than happiness.
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