The Stuff-Happiness Equation

Smart People

The British are smart people.

They revolutionized naval warfare.

They kept their queen.

They invented the sandwich.

They are really bright. 

Consider this: Beginning in 1972, they began doing socio-economic research into General Well Being (GWB). They were trying to find out how happiness relates to income. Over that 40 year period, they discovered a number of interesting facts. First, the rich really are happier than the poor. No surprise there. Anyone who has been stressed about not having enough money instinctively understands this finding. Second, they found that Brits were happiest when eating, carousing or pottering in the garden. Again, not surprising. (Sorry Brits.) What was surprising was the discovery that though national levels of wealth have dramatically increased over the last 4 decades, the level of joy among rich people has barely budged. As the subtitle to one publication proclaims: “Capitalism can make a society rich … Don’t ask it to make you happy as well”[1] This finding goes against a foundational thesis of capitalism, that the more well-off the society, the higher its level of happiness. In otherwords,

“more stuff “ = “more joy”.

Like I said, smart people, those Brits.

Money Can’t Buy Me Love

If asked outright, most of us would disagree with this Stuff-Happiness Equation. We all know that more, bigger and better stuff doesn’t make us happier. To quote the Beatles:

“Money can’t buy me love”.

But there is a part of us that doesn’t really believe that finding. It’s the part that wants to park in the handicapped spot at the mall or do “express check-out” with 23 items. It’s a little disbelieving and counter-culture. It doesn’t listen to the party line.

Or British Researchers.

Or the Beatles.

It’s a bit more Pink Floyd and Madonna. So while part of us is lip-syncing John, Paul, George and Ringo, the other part is humming

“We’re all living in a material world and I’m a material girl.”

It’s that part of us that fantasizes about the latest John Mayer CD or the Jimmy Choo stilettos shouting at us from the store window. It won’t outright tell us that more cars, houses, and boats will make us happier. Or that building a portfolio, gaining more prestige and accumulating power will increase our satisfaction. But it has a hunger for more, better, and different. And that by temporarily satisfying its cravings, we will feel more contentment, joy and satisfaction. That is, after all, the equation as it should be:

IF God gives us good stuff for our happiness,

THEN the more stuff, the more happiness.

THEREFORE we should get more stuff.

The Mountain

On a recent trip to Montreal my friends and I decided to drive up to the top of “The Mountain”. As we climbed the winding streets, the houses got bigger, more beautiful and elaborate. All of us kept oohing and ahhing over them. I was daydreaming about owning one, with its beautiful windows and sunlit rooms, the wooded mountain park behind it, and the stunning view across the St. Lawrence River. I was imagining how nice it would be to pray, read my bible and write deep thoughts about God in such quiet oppulence. I could almost feel the sublime things of heaven descending upon my soul. Glorious.

However, not all of us had such spiritual thoughts.

Ben had been obsessing over a black Aston Martin that was also meandering to the top of the mountain. He kept watching it in the mirror, distractedly driving through red lights and down the wrong streets in the process. When we pulled up beside it at one point you could hear the throaty growl of its V-12 engine. “That’s my all-time favourite car” he gushed. Two days later he was still drooling over pictures of it on the internet.

Not Too Much Please

Many of us have strong delusions about our ability to live productive and meaningful lives in an atmosphere of unfettered wealth. We think we can hold onto our values and dignity when we get rich. But that is a total fantasy. Because winning the lottery or being named affluent Aunt Bertha’s sole heir means we can do whatever we want. Whenever we want. However we want. And we are unprepared for this vast purchasing power by our lack of training and feebleness of will. Most of us have simply not matured into the discipline of handling wealth. We don’t know how to say “no” to our own material girl. 

That is probably why an ancient writer penned such an insightful prayer on this topic.

Don’t let me have too little or too much.

Just feed me the food I’m supposed to have.

So that I won’t become smug and complacent and forget who you are “

Or that I won’t become desperate, steal something and make you look bad.

                                                                        (Prov 30:8-9 - Great Gordini Version)

Sometimes, all that keeps us from being really ungodly is the size of our paychecks.

A Flawed Equation. A Flawed Desire.

I’m not saying that being poor or parsimonious is a more godly state. Nor am I saying that being rich isn’t fun. But what I am saying is that we need to be able to handle what we are given. And we need to recognize that the little voice that says we will be happier with more is absolutely wrong. Anyone who takes stock of themselves after a binge of retail therapy will tell you that they’ve been lied to.

God really does give good things as a source of joy. But maybe the Stuff-Happiness Equation is missing something in its formulation. Maybe more stuff really doesn’t equal more joy. That was certainly the observation of the 19th century philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who commented about Americans

“So many lucky men, restless in the midst of abundance.”

Truth is, he could have been describing the countless numbers of people around us every day.

Tocqueville was a pretty smart guy. 

British I think.


[1] “Happiness (and how to measure it),” The Economist, December 23, 2006. This issue also includes a number of other articles on joy and economics.