As Wealth Increases, Happiness Doesn't

Why doesn't increased prosperity and rising standards of living translate into more happiness?
Chuck Colson

A new book, entitled Falling Behind, attempts to resolve one of the defining paradoxes of our age: Why doesn't increased prosperity and rising standards of living translate into more happiness?

Ultimately, Falling Behind misses the mark, like other similar efforts, because it doesn't understand where happiness comes from in the first place. 

What columnist Robert Samuelson calls the "economic disconnect" is evident in polling data: thirty years ago, 36 percent of Americans said that they were "very happy" and another 53 percent called themselves "pretty happy."

In 2006, only 32 percent called themselves "very happy" and 55 percent said they were "pretty happy." Our sense of happiness has barely budged despite increased prosperity and even greater improvements in our standard of living. What's more, as Samuelson points out, people aren't any happier during boom times than they are during recessions.

The disconnect between money and happiness is even more pronounced from a global perspective. A few years ago, New Scientist magazine asked the residents of 65 countries how happy they were. The survey found that Nigerians, followed by Mexicans, Venezuelans, and Salvadorians, were the happiest people in the world. Obviously, prosperity didn't play much, if any, role in the happiness of these countries.

The author of Falling Behind, Cornell economist Robert Frank, argues that while increased prosperity can't make you happy, it can, ironically, contribute to unhappiness. Rising standards of living also raise our expectations. Since we can never fully meet our expectations, we are always going to be less than happy, and our attempts to "keep up with the Joneses" leave us feeling unsatisfied.

While Frank's argument makes sense, it doesn't tell us anything about what makes people happy in the first place. Thus, it can't tell us why increased prosperity doesn't translate into increased happiness.

To understand that, you need to talk to someone other than an economist, such as your spouse or a friend at church. Literally. The National Opinion Research Center found that married couples are two-and-one-half times more likely to call themselves "very happy" than divorced people. A similar difference exists between married people who attend church weekly and single people who don't.

Results in other countries are similar to those in the United States: A survey of Australians found that "Christians are happier than atheists and more generous . . ." The results led the researcher to conclude that the "decline of the significance of church life in Australia" has led to a loss in the "fabric of community well-being."

The role that faith and family play in our happiness suggests a possible answer to the paradox I mentioned: The same period that saw rising standards of living also saw a weakening of family life and increased secularization.

While we were getting richer materially, we were becoming poorer in the things that most contribute to our happiness. That's why we don't feel any better about ours lives.

Twenty-five hundred years ago Isaiah asked the question: "Why spend your labor on what does not satisfy?" The question still applies. That's because we, like the people he first asked, have forgotten where happiness comes from.  

Copyright © 2007 Prison Fellowship

BreakPoint is a daily commentary on news and trends from a Christian perspective. Heard on more than 1000 radio outlets nationwide, BreakPoint transcripts are also available on the  Internet. BreakPoint is a production of The Wilberforce Forum, a division of Prison Fellowship: 1856 Old Reston Avenue, Reston, VA 20190.

Originally published August 29, 2007.