Can You Buy Happiness?

Can You Buy Happiness?

By Jim Windell

             If you keep playing the lottery hoping to win millions, are you doing this because you are convinced that having a massive amount of money will bring you happiness?

            On the other hand, are people who live in the United States, a very prosperous country happier than people who live in a more economically depressed country, such as Venezuela or North Korea?

            There may be an assumption, especially in wealthier nations, that by increasing the economy of poor countries we would be increasing the well-being of the people who live there. But should this assumption be questioned?

            A new study has looked at this question. This study, study led by McGill University and the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technologies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) suggests that there may be good reason to question this assumption. The researchers wanted to find out how people rate their subjective well-being in societies where money plays a minimal role. This kind of question is not usually included in global happiness surveys.

           To explore how monetization affects people's sense of well-being, the researchers spent time in several small fishing communities, with varying degrees of monetization, in the Solomon Islands and Bangladesh, two very low-income countries. Over a period of a few months, with the help of local translators, they interviewed citizens in both rural and urban areas several times. The interviews, which took place both in person and through phone calls – often at unexpected moments –, were designed to elicit information about what constituted happiness for the study subjects. In addition, the researchers hoped to get a sense of their subject’s passing moods, their lifestyle, fishing activities, household income, and level of market integration (market integration basically refers to how easily two or more markets can trade with each other).

           The researchers interviewed 678 people, ranging in age between their mid-twenties and early fifties, but almost 85 % of the study participants were male. The disproportionate number of men in the study was due to the fact that cultural norms in Bangladesh made it difficult to interview women. In the Solomon Islands, responses to the study questions from men and women were not significantly different, although the authors of the study pointed out that this did not necessarily apply to the interviews in Bangladesh, where men and women's social realities and lifestyles differ considerably.

           The results of the study, recently published in PLOS One, show that the majority of people reported remarkably high levels of happiness. This was especially true in the communities with the lowest levels of monetization, where citizens reported a degree of happiness comparable to that found in Scandinavian countries which typically rate highest in the world. The results suggest that high levels of subjective well-being can be achieved with minimal monetization, challenging the perception that economic growth will automatically raise life satisfaction among low-income populations.

           For instance, the researchers found that in the communities where money was in greater use, such as in urban Bangladesh, residents reported lower levels of happiness.

           "Our study hints at possible ways of achieving happiness that are unrelated to high incomes and material wealth," says Eric Galbraith, a professor in McGill's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the senior author on the study. "This is important, because if we replicate these results elsewhere and can pinpoint the factors that contribute to subjective well-being, it may help us circumvent some of the environmental costs associated with achieving social well-being in the least developed nations."

           Another finding of the study was that in poorer areas people reported a greater proportion of time spent with family and contact with nature as being responsible for making them happy, according to lead author, Sara Miñarro, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at (ICTA-UAB). "But with increasing monetization, we found that the social and economic factors commonly recognized in industrialized countries played a bigger role. Overall, our findings suggest that monetization, especially in its early stages, may actually be detrimental to happiness," Miñarro  says.

           The authors speculate that perhaps happiness does not relate to the economics of an area. Maybe when people are comfortable, safe, and free to enjoy life within a strong community, they are happy -- regardless of whether or not they are making any money.

           So, you might be happier if you, in fact, don’t win the lottery or if you don’t inherit several million dollars.

            To read the article, find it with this reference:

Sara Miñarro, Victoria Reyes-García, Shankar Aswani, Samiya Selim, Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, Eric D. Galbraith. Happy without money: Minimally monetized societies can exhibit high subjective well-being. PLOS ONE, 2021; 16 (1): e0244569 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0244569

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