The Cost of Happiness

A torn world

On one side there is the promotion of acquiring and possessing material goods (primarily money), and glorification of money as an objective measure of success, while on the other side – the ultimate destination of man is peace and spiritual well-being. It is just one of the many dichotomous concepts that tear a modern man apart. The West and the East collide with incredible force in every sense, more and more intense and fiercer, leaving the little man confused and sad. I don’t know to which side we belong in this region of ours, but one is certain, our man has been bombarded more and more with the very idea that money is happiness, and the road to it is the goal of our journey.

The pursuit of happiness, the quest of acquiring money or something else, is the main motivation of an individual, but also a precondition for social well-being – John Locke, an English 17th-century philosopher pointed out. The realization [of happiness] brings fulfillment, and the pursuit of happiness is the only human desire that is the goal itself – the ultimate desire or the ultimate goal. We, of course, interpret the meaning of the word happiness in our own way, so dictionaries and definitions are of no help to us, but a large number of us (admit it or not) think that happiness is difficult to reach without money.

We have more, so we are happier

The last two centuries have brought a dizzying pace of human development. Each industrial revolution accelerated the development, increased the number of literate and educated people, and extended the lifespan. At the beginning of the 19th century, one in ten people in the world was literate, today one in ten is illiterate. Two hundred years ago, nine out of ten inhabitants of our planet lived in conditions of extreme poverty, now one in ten people on the planet is extremely poor. An average life expectancy was 30 years, today it’s above 70. There is everything, but is there more happiness?

When we look at some of the international studies on the degree of satisfaction and happiness of nations, we notice that countries with high GDP are not much “happier” than those with a much lower one. At the individual level, just as at the national level, the conclusions are the same – the richest Americans have expressed only slightly more subjective feelings of happiness compared to the average American with an average income.

There is more depression, more violence, more sadness, more suicides, but also more money than ever before. How is it possible?! Is this a thesis about uneven distribution? Has the paradox of choice and abundance led us to never fully enjoying ourselves after deciding on something, thinking that another choice might be better? Maybe in order to have money, we sacrificed the time necessary to enjoy the benefits it brings? Maybe having and being are not the same, maybe it’s harder to be when you have, or maybe the answer to the question of how it is possible that we are so rich, but not happy is something completely different… I’ve been researching this field for a long time, mostly because I am curious, but also because I often work with people who are successful and rich, but not always satisfied (happy). Here are some of my thoughts on that topic…

Why money doesn’t bring happiness

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from the University of Clermont offered a detailed answer to the above question. He noticed that three factors influence the fact that no matter how much more we have (and gain more and more) we are not happier:

  1. The ladder is constantly being risen / escalation of expectations – We set a goal in work (advancement, higher salary) or in life (a new car, vacation with family, better relationship) and when reaching the goal is at our hand, we somehow miss the happiness that would, as we believed, come as a result of the achievement of that goal. It reminds me of the story of Tantalus and his anguish. He was invited to Zeus’ table in Olympus. He stole the nectar and ambrosia served only at this divine table to smuggle it back to the world to share with other mortals. Because of that (and something else), he was punished to stay thirsty and hungry in Tartarus. He was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. And so, our unfortunate Tantalus remained hungry and thirsty (unhappy) until the end of eternity. It seems to me that we are all like Tantalus in his anguish, and it seems that this is because we don’t measure satisfaction with money by its objective value (for everything that it enables and brings to us), but on the basis of the level of our adaptation to what we have. Whether we have a lot or a little, we assess under the influence of how much we are habituated to what we have. If we are used to having a lot, we feel that we have “a little” no matter how objective the value of what we have is.
  2. Comparison kills objectivity – When resources are unevenly distributed, people evaluate their possessions not in terms of what they need to live in comfort, but in comparison with those who have the most. We see them on phone screens, on magazine covers, on billboards; in our environment, we scan and notice those who have the most, and instead of maintaining awareness of our own needs, we think about who has more and how to achieve it, regardless of whether we objectively need this more. So we fall into the next trap, which brings us nothing good and takes everything from us.
  3. Material security does not translate into socioemotional security – This is the most slippery point in the search for happiness through money. The point is that increasing material security (especially if we come from a place of material insecurity) at first really brings considerable relief and improves social and emotional life. For that reason, we believe that more money will bring even greater relief and an even better socioemotional life. However, the increase does not bring prosperity. It has been confirmed that money brings happiness, but up to a certain amount! How much money you need for happiness can actually be calculated and the amount varies from country to country, even from city to city. Over that figure, more money is an irrelevant factor for the feeling of happiness. Moreover, many confirm that significantly more money not only does not bring more happiness but on the contrary – makes you unhappy. Why is that? First of all, it is about the fact that during the race for money (and happiness), we have developed our business, knowledge, established social contacts (which lead us to even more money and “happiness”), so all other social contacts like family relationships, raising children, friends, learning new things, researching and nurturing curiosity have become a “waste of time”. All that doesn’t bring money is an expense because earning money consumes time (eng. Opportunity cost). And so, year after year with more and more money, there are fewer and fewer people, less and less beautiful pure emotions, new knowledge… there is less and less happiness. Can we remember that point in our lives when money began to drag us from happiness to misfortune? I can. I can almost remember the day and all the deceptions I uttered to myself to mask the clear thought that this increase will not bring me prosperity, but will take me away from myself and everything that is genuine happiness. And what could happiness be?

What brings happiness

In the post 3D Growth Map, I describe in detail how we feel when we cross that point, that nasty, greasy, dirty point after which more work, more success, and more money bring us more… but often only more bitterness and misery. Read it, it’s important. What happens then is that instead of creating more, but different – more good in different places and sides, we then create more of the same which instead of becoming good and prosperity, becomes evil that leads to the destruction of relationships with loved ones, to diseases, to suffering and to anguish. More of the same leads to greed, depression, malice, pride, anxiety, to excessive eating, drinking, high alcohol consumption, to addiction (drugs, gambling, adultery); it leads to violence, aggression, negligence, selfishness, autoimmune diseases, sadness, suffering, loneliness, and alienation. Although in company and crowds (like zombies), we become more lonely than ever. There is no one and there is nothing, and to you, it seems that you have everything! Happiness is one big scam, we might think then. But it’s not. The deception is that money brings happiness, that money itself brings happiness, and that there is time for everything else.

If I had to pick one book today that I would recommend to anyone to read, it would be Erich Fromm’s book “The Sane Society”. I wouldn’t be wrong to add “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness” and “To Have or to Be” by the same author, but “The Sane Society” is really a must-read for anyone who wants to stay mentally healthy in times of social madness. The author states in it that we are all born, but that there are a small number of those who give birth to themselves.

To give birth to oneself, according to Fromm, means to wake up (oneself), to become (self)aware, to (get to) know (oneself), and to love (yourself). Alienation from oneself is the basis of the disease of society because we are mostly everyone else and we are the least ourselves. Partly because we are being bombed and harassed by the media, but mostly because we dedicate so little time to ourselves.

Who are you? If you didn’t have that name and that title, how would you introduce yourself? If you didn’t have children and you didn’t live in that country, who would you be? Who are you regardless of everyone and everything you have, regardless of everything you don’t have? Why do you feel that way, why do you do what you do and not something else? Why do you have such beliefs? Why do you want that profession, that knowledge, that money? Becoming a stranger in your own skin, born without ever being born – nothing, and the least money – will lead you to happiness until you find yourself.

Finding yourself is a multi-day job. My job is to do such work, from a business point of view, while therapists, people who deal with spirituality and religion in clinical practice, do it in different ways. The goal is the same.

To make myself clear – no one disputes that it is necessary to satisfy our basic needs. A well-known psychologist Abraham Maslow described this in detail in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” (a famous work known as Maslow’s Pyramid, although Maslow himself did not use that term). This professor identified basic human needs and actions motivated in order to achieve them, depending on the fulfillment of those needs. The first is physiological needs (food, water, clothing), then safety needs (employment, property), followed by love and belonging (to love and be loved, sense of connection). As we ascend as human beings (i.e. we give birth to ourselves, as Fromm would say), we need esteem (self-esteem, recognition, respect from others) and eventually self-actualization (desire to become the most that one can be) that is, to realize our potential and find our purpose. Maslow, however, states in that paper that above these basic and social needs, at the very top of the human ascent, there is a desire – a strong passionate desire for knowledge, and a desire to understand. Of all the things we strive for, the only desire is knowledge, everything else is a need.

Whether happiness is wealth, prosperity, status, or knowledge, we need to figure it out. What great people leave us in their writings is the message that it is necessary to create more but different, that it is necessary to go into depth, but to a point from which it is more important to go into width. Thus we reach the state of flow, that the author of the above-mentioned paper (on money and happiness) writes about – a state that makes us relaxed and satisfied with whatever we do, doing what gets us going.

Who you are, what you want, and what makes you happy, is not determined by money but knowledge – knowledge about yourself and knowledge about the world that creates a desire to understand, and thus you give birth to yourself again and again.

We should be happy to be born and even happier to be born every day. We have said many things here, I hope it is more clear now that we are always worth far more than we have gained so far. It’s kind of easier now, isn’t it :)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *