Q. ‘Money allows us to live in comfort, even luxury. Surely we need a decent standard of living to be happy?’
If our happiness depended on our standard of living we would be far happier than people who lived centuries ago, who had no access to the vast array of pleasures and comforts we have today. But there is no evidence to suggest that’s the case.
Someone living in a luxurious house will be no happier than someone living in a hut, provided the basic needs are met. We are good at adapting to an environment. Someone living in a palace will, after a while, find it nothing out of the ordinary. It’s called habituation. In fact, people living luxurious lives are disadvantaged, because when they are forced to endure ordinary circumstances (such as an economy seat on a plane) they are particularly inconvenienced.
Habituation is one reason why some people buy a new car every two years. The thrill of a new car wears off and the owner feels empty. So, to feel good again buys another new car. But who is the more satisfied – the person who feels the need to keep updating their car, or the person content to have the same car for decades?
It’s the emotional health of a person which determines a person’s core happiness, not their environment. If luxury really did contribute to a person’s core happiness a peasant living in a hut in the cold Mongolian hills would be less happy than someone living in a Sydney mansion, but there is no evidence to suggest that’s the case. Nor am I convinced that we are happier than our grandparents, who grew up with rudimentary medicine and no electrical appliances. Were they to live in similar conditions today we would consider them paupers. But were they less happy? No. Nor were people living in huts centuries back.
We all enjoy comfort and luxury, because they provide temporary happiness. But they do not contribute to core happiness.
And remember what Kahil Gibran said of our lust for comfort: ‘. . . that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.’
‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’
3rd century BC philosopher, Epicurus.
‘Happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want.’
‘We get used to owning the new lounge suite and it becomes part of the furniture, so to speak. So we need continuous material purchases to maintain the same level of satisfaction.’ Ross Gittins, journalist.
Q. ‘Mr B, I have heard that we eat better and live better than all the kings of yesteryear. Is that true?’
Sure. You can thank refrigeration, multiculturalism, trade agreements and sophisticated transport systems for that. Also, those kings had to live in cold castles, their travelling options were limited, and heaven help them if they became ill or injured. But still, I would not conclude that because we live better than the kings and peasants of yesteryear that we are therefore happier than they were.
Q. ‘What’s wrong with wanting luxury?’
Luxury is wonderful until you have become habituated to it. Then there can be a few problems:
1. If you become used to luxury, you might become dissatisfied when presented with the ordinary.
2. It’s possible some wealthy people don’t enjoy living in their huge homes because they feel isolated, even lonely, living in them.
3. If the wealthy use their luxury home to establish their status they are in trouble, because there will always be a better house nearby.
Q.’ If having luxury doesn’t make us happy, why do so many of us work so hard to acquire luxury?’
Luxury isn’t the motivation to be rich; it’s just a perk. The rich work hard for other reasons.
Q. ‘Surely someone in a plush house must be happier than a guy in a chook shed?’
If so, it’s because the guy living in a chook shed has poorer emotional health.
‘Are you suggesting that an emotionally healthy person living in a chook shed would be happier than an emotionally poor person living in a mansion?’
I am. And with equal emotional health they’ll be equally happy.
Exercise 1. You are to be relocated to another planet. There are two planets from which to choose:
(i) In World One you will not have a high standard of living, but you will be better off compared to everyone else around you.
(ii) In World Two you will have a better standard of living than you would have in World One, but you will be worse off than everyone else around you.
Which world do you choose?
(This exercise was mentioned by British economist and philosopher Richard Layard, in his interview with Andrew Marr in ABC Radio National’s documentary, ‘Background Briefing.’ 17th April 2005)
Bill has been driving the same Mazda for twenty years, and he is so satisfied with it he has no thoughts of getting another car. Jill has been driving Maseratis for twenty years, upgrading to the new model every two years.
Question: Who enjoys the better driving experience? Is it Bill, who is so satisfied with his driving experience he has no inclination to improve it, or is it Jill, who over the last twenty years has been dissatisfied with her driving experience ten times?
Q. ‘Mr Bashful, having wealth provides us with financial security, which would make anyone happy.’
Wealth cannot provide financial security. Only one thing can. Click here to find out what it is.