Happiness (Continued)

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I have been posting an entry about happiness periodically whenever I read something worthy of comment or have new thoughts about the subject. (Stealing a line from Paul Krugman, this post is wonkish.) Today’s blog entry was triggered about the front page essay in the Sunday Boston Globe’s Ideas section. The theme is that “[m]oney can improve your life, but not in the ways you think.”

The argument begins with data showing that money spent for other people is valued higher on a happiness scale than money spent on oneself. Psychologists now say about this apparent contradiction to the old saying that money doesn’t buy happiness that:

The problem isn’t money, it’s us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.

The conclusion seems clear, but the language can be misleading. The researchers speak of “deep-seated psychological reasons.” It’s very important not to interpret this as saying that we are intrinsically wired to “value goods over experiences.” We may indeed be wired, but that wiring is the result of our socialization in a culture with very strong norms that transmit this value to us incessantly until our cognitive database stores this rule as a dominant response to opportunities to spend money.

Another theme that has emerged in similar research is that money spent on experiences - vacations or theater tickets or meals out - makes you happier than money spent on material goods. Leaf Van Boven, an associate psychology professor at the University of Colorado, and Thomas Gilovich, chair of the psychology department at Cornell University, have run surveys asking people about past purchases and how happy they made them.

“We generally found very consistent evidence that experiences made people happier than material possessions they had invested in,” says Van Boven.

Why? For one thing, Van Boven and Gilovich argue, experiences are inherently more social - when we vacation or eat out or go to the movies it’s usually with other people, and we’re liable also to relive the experience when we see those people again. And past experiences can work as a sort of social adhesive even with people who didn’t participate with us, providing stories and conversational fodder in a way that a new watch or speedboat rarely can.

Again, the data are very interesting, but the connection to psychology is tenuous. I believe the reason rests more in the idea of Being and has ontological, not psychological, roots. Since happiness is a part of the more extensive quality, flourishing, getting the understanding straight is very important. The Globe article refers to suggestions that would increase charitable giving and mentions other similar strategies for creating happiness by tilting spending away from selfish purchases. These are, unfortunately, little more than quick fixes that fail to address the underlying cause: the loss of our understanding of what it means to be a human being.

As I have written, I believe the deepest ontological structure of Being is built on care. The researchers noted the positive effects of expenditures on taking care of others and on experiences which are described as fundamentally “social,” that is, involving a caring relationship. The experience of Being is exactly the “ineffable” that replaces the mere satisfaction of some need. It is what flourishing is about. And further, the restoration of this consciousness is an essential part of creating sustainability.

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