Yet another study (BBC report here | Prospect article here) has confirmed what the wealthy have always told us: money does not buy happiness. It seems that after per capita income has exceeded around £10000, populations experience an inverse relationship between increased income and happiness. The question is then justifiably asked: should governments be focused on increasing the happiness or wealth of the countries they rule?
That, of course, depends on your definition of happiness.
In the sermon on the mount, we read in contemporary translations of Jesus saying ‘happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, happy are the hungry’ and we can hardly see many manifestos announcing these policies proving successful.
A good Wiki article on the topic attempts a re-translation of happy as “possessing an inward contentedness and joy that is not affected by the physical circumstances” and this, I think, nudges us closer to the truth about happiness, and perhaps unlocks why increased wealth does not necessarily offer it.
In Matthew’s expanded list, we see ‘happiness’ being found by those who exhibit meekness, poverty, mercy, hunger, purity of heart, peacemaking, mourning and persecution for right living. In virtually all of these we see a sense of gift. The person finding happiness is ‘empty’ because they have engaged with ‘the other’: they grieve for the other, they have mercy on the other, they make peace with another. Hunger, a meek purity of heart and poverty also seem to carry this sense of emptiness.
Wealth does not bring happiness because it pools and centralizes resources, and thus leads to barriers between people, to loneliness. The beatitudes do lead to happiness because they lead to engagement with the other, and interdependence. The reason we think wealth is going to buy happiness is because we remain convinced that we have to buy our way into relationship: people will only like us if we have x, y and z.
As Merton says in New Seeds of Contemplation: “We wind experiences around ourselves like bandages in order to make ourselves perceptible to ourselves and to the world, as if we were invisible bodies that could only become visible when something visible covered their surface.”
Riches are tempting because we feel the need to clothe ourselves, to make ourselves visible and important. But happiness appears to come from another source. From giving rather than getting. From making others feel visible, rather than trying to make ourselves more visible.
The politics of such a ‘gift society’ are tricky. Would increasing our own happiness lead to other nations being less happy? Would a lesser focus on economic growth mean real hardship for a poor minority? The hard conclusion of the reports is that the surest way forward to happiness is to tax the rich more. Now that’s hardly going to win elections, is it 😉