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Are Rich People Happier Than Poor People?

We know so much about happiness, yet we understand so little. For example, we can see happiness in others (a mother knows when a child…

We know so much about happiness, yet we understand so little. For example, we can see happiness in others (a mother knows when a child is happy or sad). We know some of the things that cause joy, e.g. a delicious meal (some cultures actually have business meetings while dining because that is the time people are more agreeable.)

Yet, there are some questions we wonder about. Such as: can we buy happiness? Does success make you happy? Are people in developed countries happier than their poor counterparts? Can we trick ourselves into happiness? Does positive thinking cause happiness? Does happiness even matter?

Indeed, the answer to a life of happiness is much simpler than you think. But you may require a pencil (but it is not for writing), a diary and a gratitude attitude.

Let’s start with the last question: does happiness even matter?

It does.

Some years ago, Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California and colleagues set themselves the daunting task of reviewing hundreds of experiments on the effects of happiness.

In his book, “59 Seconds,” Richard Wiseman reported the results of that study:

“After trawling the data from hundreds of studies involving more than a quarter of a million participants, Lyubomirsky discovered impressive benefits to being happy. Happiness makes people more sociable and altruistic, it increases how much they like themselves and others, it improves their ability to resolve conflict, and it strengthens their immune systems. The cumulative effect means that people have more satisfying and successful relationships, find more fulfilling careers, and live longer, healthier lives.”

In order words, happiness leads to positive psychological and even physiological outcomes.

Wiseman continues:

“Given the emotional and tangible benefits of happiness, it is not surprising that everyone wants a slice of the pie. But what is the most effective way of putting a permanent smile on your face? Ask most people the question, and you are likely to receive a two-word answer: more money. In survey after survey, the need for a fatter wallet consistently tops the “must have” list for happiness. But is it really possible to buy happiness, or do financial aspirations set you on the road to despair?”

This leads us to the second question: does more money get you happiness?

Only to an extent.

In the 70s, Philip Brickman of Northwestern  University and his colleagues wanted to answer that question. Do people who achieve their financial dreams live a happier life than the common run of men?

To answer that, he contacted people who had won major financial prizes in the Illinois Lottery, including those who won millions. In the control group, he randomly selected people from a telephone directory.

All the participants were asked to rate how happy they were at the moment and how happy they thought they would be in the future. They were also surveyed on how much pleasure they derive from everyday activities such as hearing a joke, conversation with friends, and so for forth. The results provide instructive insight on the relationship between wealth and happiness.

Counterintuitively, there was no difference between those with money and the control group. That is, the lottery winners were not more happy or less happy than the control group.

There was also no significant difference between the groups on how happy they expected to be in the future.

How about the pleasure they derived from the simple things in life? This was where the two groups diverged. The control group, significantly, derived more pleasure from the simple activities of daily living.

Of course, you may argue that winning the lottery is not a regular way to achieve wealth, and you are right. You may then ask about the relationship between wealth and happiness among those who worked for their wealth.

Fortunately, psychologists have answered that question too.

One way researchers approached that question was to do an international study to rate people’s happiness in different countries and match it with their gross national product (GNP). They do this, so that they can tell the differences between the poor and rich countries.

Results showed that people in very poor countries were not as happy as those in rich countries. But that difference vanishes when a country reaches a moderate GNP.

The research between salary and happiness suggests similar insights. Even those on the Forbes 100 wealthiest were only slightly happier than the average Americans, according to a study by Ed Diener of the University of Illinois.

So the message from income and happiness is clear: once people can afford their needs in life, an increase in wealth does not result in a significant level of happiness. If wealth is not a sustainable way to permanent happiness, what then is the answer?

Does positive thinking lead to happiness?

Not quite. But we will answer that question in the next chapter. In sha Allah.

Today’s column is an excerpt from the book, “Making Social Science of Islam” by Ibraheem Dooba

Repeat: First published February 25, 2023

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