Recipe for Happiness 2: Commercial Happiness?

by Waleed Ali Khan

I decided to attack this aspect of Happiness because of a certain dinner I attended last week. It was called the “Big Questions Dinner” where a bunch of students and faculty members have a fancy dinner (awesome InterCon Food!) and discuss some deep philosophical questions – questions that one would almost never discuss with anyone except one’s very close friends, let alone faculty members. It was a very nice experience. One of the things that I brought up was how when I go back to Pakistan I have to suffer in the heat due to the very frequent power cuts, and how I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. Dr. Sham Kekre (My Fall 09 accounting Professor) was of the opinion that the luxuries of life do not make anyone happier, and he encouraged us all to watch the Movie “The City of Joy”, which is based in India. I haven’t watched movie yet, but I’ll be sure to write my opinions about it if i do.

I was thinking about what Dan was saying in my last week’s post about how our economic systems run on the fact that “more is better” and that we need money to make ourselves happy. I am sure we’ve all been a victim of resorting to “retail therapy” when things are going wrong in our lives. He also gave us the example of the lottery winner whose happiness “high” had worn down after 4 years.

My aim for this blog is look at happiness through an economist’s lens to see how we can learn about what their thoughts can teach us about how to be happy.  It

imageis clear that advertisers rely a lot on giving their target audience the perception that buying their product will give them happiness.  Look at the coke advertisements on the left: could it get any clearer than that?

One of the earliest studies on happiness by Erlstein came up with the following conclusion

Average happiness levels did not increase over time as countries grew wealthier, nor was there a clear relationship between average per capita GDP and average happiness levels across countries.

This became known as the Erlstein Paradox.

And then there’s Dr. Yahya Al Mezrakchi, who I was just having a conversation with over the phone:

Me: “What do you think of Wealth and Happiness?”

Yahya: “Obviously, if you’re wealthy, you’re happy. I mean, if you have money, you can get whatever you could possibly want”

Wise man, I must say.

Even though I do agree that financial wealth has very little correlation with happiness, I cannot help but think that financial gains can make many people much happier. For one, when I go to Pakistan, I see so many people in a constant state of depression just because they are worried about how they are going to make ends meet. Furthermore, In a society such as Pakistan, where wealth commands respect from almost everyone in the society, the less wealthy often feel like they are at the bottom of the food chain. However, this requires a societal awakening rather than the pursuit of more wealth.

On the other hand, you meet these wealthy people who are emo, suicidal, or just trapped in their own Beverly hills issues. Furthermore, money brings with its own set of problems. The stress with one’s big financial empire, disputes of property and inheritance, and the inability to enjoy the finer things in life. Furthermore, many “rich people” tend to feel that their money is what defines them, and have a tough time having honest and trustworthy relationships with people.

I feel like a lot of people telling me to look at all the misery in the world and feel happy. However, the fact of the matter is that no quantifier can ever tell anyone to be happy or not. At the end of the day, happiness is a state of mind, and no one can dictate you to be happy. Economic research works because it asks people, who are the only ones that can assess their own happiness, to rate their happiness. If they give an honest response, It can give us insight into happiness v/s wealth.

My conclusion would be that wealth does play a role in happiness, but a very minor one. I am sure that people who have worked their entire lives to seek financial wealth would agree that other aspects, such a healthy relationships, a support system and a sense of purpose play a much bigger role.

PS: When you buy something: take a step back and think about whether the product will actually lead to making you happy, or if you are being fooled by the media and its propaganda. It should be an embarrassing moment for you if it is the latter.