Why an Abundant Life Does Not Lead to Happiness

It is difficult not to get caught up in the idea that money and an abundant life will bring you happiness. If you have more of what you want, you should be happier, right? Between 1957 and 2005, the average income of Americans rose by a whopping 278 percent, yet the percentage of those who described themselves as “very happy” remained virtually the same — around 30 percent.

This finding alone has convinced happiness researchers that a lifestyle of increased income has little effect on how positive a person feels.

There are three possible explanations for this:

  • The hedonic treadmill effect: Each time you reach a new level of achievement, you adjust your level of neutrality — the point at which you feel neither positive nor negative about the world around you. And, then it takes something more to make you happy. In effect, you’re comparing what you have today with what you had yesterday, and it’s the change that leads to happiness, not the absolute level.

    If you make $30,000 a year, a $5,000 raise makes you happy — but only for a while. You quickly get used to making $35,000 per year, and now you won’t be happy until you get bumped up to $43,000. And so it goes, on and on and on. People on the hedonic treadmill are never truly happy — they always want more. And there is always more to want.

  • Relative deprivation: People are constantly comparing themselves to other people — typically those who have more than they do — and they come away with a feeling of being relatively deprived when it comes to those things they think make them happy.

    For example, instead of being satisfied and grateful that you live in a house twice the size of the one you grew up in and that your parents still live in, you end up feeling unhappy because your house is smaller than your neighbor’s.

    If you find yourself often making comparisons between your lifestyle and other people’s lifestyles, make sure you spend as much time comparing your situation to those less well off than you are, too. That way, you’ll be much more content and grateful with what you have.

  • Escalating needs: Human beings unfortunately have a shifting and — all too often — escalating sense of what they perceive they need to be satisfied with life. Simply put, the more you get, the more you want! It’s not a conscious, deliberate thing — most people are unaware of this aspect of human nature. But it’s there in the back of your mind, working on you, all the time.

Negative emotions like envy, jealousy, greed, and resentment are the emotional by-products of these types of unhealthy comparisons. It comes down to the fact that, instead of being happy with what you’ve got, you feel bad toward those who have more than you do. In effect, their success makes you feel less successful, their power makes you feel powerless, and their freedom makes you feel less free.

Believe it or not, Americans actually get healthier as the economy gets worse — during a recession. Economist Christopher J. Ruhm at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro calculated, in fact, that there are 14,000 fewer deaths when unemployment increases by as little as 1 percent.

Why? Because as people have more time on their hands and less money, they lose weight, smoke less, exercise more, drive less — and, thus, have fewer accidents — and have less contact with people who may have the flu.

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