The Happiness Myth

By Desmond Yeoh SC

Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, highlighted two interesting studies on happiness in his 2019 article for the Guardian.

Firstly, the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that earning less than £400 per week (or about £20,000 a year) is one of the factors that increases the chances of being in the most miserable 1%. Above £400 per week, the increase in income generates ever-decreasing returns of happiness.  But this must be read with the study by the American Time Use Survey which revealed that happiness goes up with increases in income at the lower end of the scale, but then it falls with higher incomes. It found that those earning over $100K are no happier than those with incomes of less than $25K. Those with the highest incomes report the least sense of purpose in their experiences. Paul Dolan explained, “Data suggest that being rich can lead to time and attention being directed towards activities that fuel the attainment of more wealth, such as longer working hours and longer commutes, and away from activities that generate more happiness, such as time outside and time with family and friends”. In addition, excess wealth may tempt a person to indulge in intoxicants or activities which are detrimental to his or her emotional and physical well-being.

Most of us know this from our experience but we continue to chase after higher incomes. Perhaps pride tempts us into doing this. We feel proud when we carry a big title, live in a big house and drive around in an expensive car. However, we really need to think if the pride which wealth brings is truly worth the happiness we sacrifice. Wealth in it itself is not bad. It must be evaluated against what we need to give up to attain wealth.

If we are already making enough to meet our needs and are able to save for rainy days, then thinking about the need to earn more because a others are making more, is just unnecessary mental suffering. Financial freedom can be achieved by needing less instead of making more.

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Many of us think that our happiness depends on our external circumstances but this is just not true. Helen Russell, a journalist and bestselling author, wrote in an article for Stylist, “Iceland boasts a climate so brutal, and a landscape so otherworldly, that NASA dispatched Apollo astronauts to Iceland to train for the first moonwalk. Sunshine is such a rarity, even in summer, that workers get an ad hoc sólarfrí, or ‘sun holiday’, to savour an uncharacteristically sunny day or ‘an Icelandic heat wave’ of 18 degrees Celsius plus. Yet despite all this, Iceland regularly ranks amongst the happiest countries in the world and it’s spawned more writers, artists and general badass modern day Viking legends than most countries twice its size”.

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