How not to buy happiness

There's a fascinating article in MIT Press titled How Not to Buy Happiness (thanks Jamie for pointing it out).

It offers an interesting examination on the question of whether money buys happiness, and indeed the very roots of what makes us happy.

The author takes note of the (fairly well known) fact that happiness doesn't seem to increase with wealth beyond getting out of abject poverty, but suggests that rather than conclude that wealth has no impact on happiness, it's a question of how we appropriate our wealth. From the article:

A convenient way to examine this evidence is to consider a sequence of thought experiments in which you must choose between two hypothetical societies. The two societies have equal wealth levels but different spending patterns. In each case, let us again suppose that residents of society A live in 4,000- square-foot houses while those of society B live in 3,000-square-foot houses.

In each case, the residents of society B use the resources saved by building smaller houses to bring about some other specific change in their living conditions. In the first thought experiment, I will review in detail what the evidence says about how that change would affect the quality of their lives. In the succeeding examples, I will simply state the relevant conclusions and refer to supporting evidence published elsewhere.

Which would you choose: society A, whose residents have 4,000-square-foot houses and a one-hour automobile commute to work through heavy traffic; or society B, whose residents have-3,000 square-foot houses and a fifteen-minute commute by rapid transit?

The author goes on to explain why residents of society B would be happier, and lays out the research supporting that. I happen to fully agree.

This is the thing that most often puts me at odds with the so-called “real world”. I'm a person that realizes he'd be happier in society B, and would gladly sacrifice material wealth for more intangible items – more time to myself and a less stressful existence. The society around me, however, takes the opposite approach – it seems to place ever increasing and more stressful demands on my time and energy, offering only more material possessions as compensation. It's not a trade off that I wish to make, but it's one I'm forced into because it's an all-or-nothing proposition.


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