By Kevin Maney
from USAtoday.com - Money - Posted on 3/10/2004
Editor's Note: I saw this article in USAToday many years ago so it's a little out of date but it seems timely given the news of the billion dollar ponzi schemes by Messrs. Madoff and Stanford. I really, really love the concept of Mr. Maney's article and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Money can't buy happiness, but happiness may buy money
In coffee shops, on commuter trains and over breakfasts of high-fructose corn syrup crunch, millions of people have no doubt pointed to the Martha Stewart headlines the past few days and made some snarky remark like, "See? That shows you that money can't buy happiness."
Certainly Stewart is not happy now that she's been convicted. Last week, when former WorldCom honcho Bernie Ebbers did the perp walk, he didn't look too happy, either. The Enron guys? Same story. Got rich. Not happy.
All might have avoided their fates had they paid more attention to science. There has been an explosion in happiness research lately. The field even has its own peer-reviewed publication called Journal of Happiness Studies, with articles such as "Personality, Psychosocial Variables, and Life Satisfaction of Chinese Gay Men in Hong Kong." (In case you were wondering, they're modestly satisfied with their lives.)
Anyway, the preponderance of scientific research - which runs from studies of the brain to statistical analysis - suggests that money cannot, in fact, buy happiness.
A couple of weeks ago, happiness research dominated the agenda at a conference called TED 2004, which was attended mostly by wealthy technology CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, who always seems like the happiest guy on the planet, was there. So was Steve Case, who put together the disastrous AOL-Time Warner merger and now seems pretty grumpy. When I asked in polite conversation what he's been doing lately, he groused, "Trying to stay out of the newspapers."
All these rich people were told why their wealth won't make them happy, which you'd think they would find depressing.
For instance, one presentation was by author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, otherwise referred to in conversation among TED attendees as "that consonant guy." Csikszentmihalyi put up one chart showing that personal income in the USA has nearly tripled since 1956, while the number of Americans who say they're very happy has remained the same year after year - about 30%.
"The lack of material resources contributes to unhappiness," he told the audience. "But an increase does not contribute to happiness."
In another session, Harvard University researcher Daniel Gilbert showed one photo of a lottery winner and another of someone who was paralyzed in an accident. One year after their life-changing events, his studies show, both were equally happy.
Why? Gilbert explained that humans can synthesize happiness. Even after a disaster, most people return to a kind of happiness set point, which other studies say is genetically determined. We rationalize, we find new ways to be happy - whatever it takes. It's what my mother called "making do." It's why someone can look back on getting laid off and say it turned out for the best. Even if pain or anger lingers, we can be happy.
More of the science is explained in a new book, Mind Wide Open, by Steven Johnson. He gets into new research about dopamine, a chemical that acts as a reward accountant in your brain. It makes you feel good or bad depending on your expectation of what will happen.
For example, if you expect the sex to be great and it's not, you might feel down even though you got to have sex. If you expect a night of monkish chastity and get one good tonsil-rocking kiss, you might be ecstatic. With dopamine, it's all relative.
That gets back to why money doesn't necessarily make someone happy long term.
If you've built a business and you own a boat and a horse farm and lots of people want to bow at your feet, your brain comes to expect every day to be like that. If that's exactly what happens, you don't get any special dopamine reward.
Because dopamine is released based on expectations, you only get a dopamine cocktail if something better than what you expected happens. Your dopamine accountant's expectations constantly readjust to your new circumstances. That tends to make you just as happy or unhappy now as you were back when you worked in the mailroom and drove a Ford Pinto.
This might help explain why a Martha Stewart or Bernie Ebbers kept clawing for more money even after they had made millions, made headlines and gained power. They were really desperate for more dopamine, and they thought the next level of money, fame or success would get it. But their dopamine accountants readjusted and the high didn't last. Essentially, they overdosed on money and power for much the same reason Janis Joplin overdosed on heroin.
Now, as Johnson points out, there's an interesting tangent to this. Brain researchers found that activity in your prefrontal cortices - located behind your forehead, about where you feel a Jägermeister hangover - signifies idea generation and lively thought. Sadness decreases prefrontal cortical activity, while happiness increases it.
If you tease that out, it means that happy people are more likely to have good ideas and think quickly, which often leads to success and thus to increased wealth. So it's entirely possible that while money can't get you happiness, happiness can get you money.
So perhaps the TED attendees are successful in the technology industry because they're happy, which could explain why they don't seem to feel badly about learning that money won't buy happiness. When I asked, many said they found the conference's message uplifting.
Any way you slice it, we are good at locking onto a happiness set point. Assuming Stewart is out of jail a few years from now, she probably will look back on her conviction and say it was the best thing that could've happened.