Happiness, money and giving

Happiness, money and giving

Happiness is a $58m question


Mirko Bagaric

June 09, 2008

SO what should the lucky $58 million Powerball winners do to benefit most from the windfall and make the world a better place?

The answer is not as obvious as it seems. But much of it rests in the adage that it’s more rewarding to give than to take.

When is the last time you heard that old chestnut?

I’m tipping not recently.

The materialism tidal wave that we are experiencing has all but swept away that notion of kindness to the footnote section of sociology and morality books.

Hopefully, there is still scope for it to re-emerge in our vocabulary.

To this end, the Powerball winners should pay heed to the decision last year by one of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett, to give away about 85 per cent of his wealth to charities.

The handout by Buffett, aged 75 at the time, followed the sudden death of his wife.

Buffett said that he and his wife had always wanted to give away their money faster:

“I always had the idea that philanthropy was important today but would be equally important in one year, 10 years, 20 years and the future generally.”

Still, better late than never.

The reason that the Powerball winners and the rest of us should start reacquainting ourselves with the interests of those less well off than us is because our physical and mental health partly depends on it.

Sometimes you have got to be careful what you wish for.

Hence the reason your turbocharged work ethic and growing credit card debt hasn’t given you a fuel-injected smile.

In fact, there’s a fair chance that you’re feeling like a bit of a wreck.

Despite the fact that we have more than three times the real purchasing power of our grandparents, the rate of depression has increased almost exponentially during the same period.

If you stopped clawing up the corporate ladder for a few hours to read the emerging literature on human wellbeing, you would understand very quickly why our current, self-obsessed lifestyles irreconcilably conflict with the way in which we are wired.

Despite all the supposed technological “advances”, we are working longer hours than ever before, we have higher levels of stress than any other generation in history and we make more (mostly irrelevant) decisions each day than humans living 1000 years ago did in a year.

The root cause of the growing mental deterioration is one thing, greed, which has been driven by an explosion in individualism.

The causes are understandable.

We get bombarded with thousands of images daily of new products and we all want to progress — we want to be better than we were yesterday.

The most objective and definable unit for measuring personal progress is how much money we have in the bank and how many other resources we own.

But, as with most things in life that are cheap and easy, a progression scale built principally on a resource base is fundamentally flawed and is, in fact, counter-productive.

Using brain imaging sensors to weed out the grumps, scientists have identified the things that make people happy. While there is still some work to do at the margins on the happiness register, a number of things are clear.

First, happiness can’t be bought by a few extra bucks.

Once we are above the poverty line money makes only a small contribution to our level of happiness and once we reach about the average level of income it makes virtually no difference to our level of contentment.

In fact, people who focus on the accumulation of wealth are more likely to be unhappy.

Materialistic values are counter-productive because, over time they heighten insecurity, which is one of the primary causes of unhappiness.

While money won’t do the trick, there are activities that will almost certainly bring a smile to your face.

The research shows that things conducive to happiness include fit and healthy bodies, realistic goals, optimism, a sense of control, close relationships, challenging work and active leisure, punctuated by adequate rest and a faith that entails communal support, purpose and acceptance.

The evidence also shows that people who engage in genuine acts of kindness experience higher levels of wellbeing than scrooges.

So it’s time to take the lead from Buffett and give a little to get a lot.

Oh, and you’re probably better off not waiting until you’re 75 to see the light – your growing work hours and waistline might result in the light being switched off before then.

– Mirko Bagaric is a professor of law at Deakin University