Money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy protection from certain forms of unhappiness

Money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy protection from certain forms of unhappiness May 9, 2013

I used to have what calls “the worst job in America.”

But it wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had. The truth is, actually, that it was a pretty great job — it’s just a great job in a terrible industry. The newspaper business is run by short-sighted idiots who seem determined to crash and burn. They’re making life increasingly miserable for the shrinking number of people who still work at newspapers, but in those few moments when reporters and editors are able to just do the job itself without interference from the idiots in charge, that job is still challenging, rewarding, meaningful and even fun. Not “the worst job in America” by a long shot.

“The Worship of Mammon,” by Evelyn De Morgan.

CareerCast had the misfortune of releasing it’s list of “the worst jobs” on April 23 — the day before the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 950 garment workers. CareerCast did qualify that their list was only about jobs in America. But there are plenty of miserable sweatshops with unsafe working conditions here in America, too.

Let’s be generous and assume that CareerCast is only considering the worst licit and legal jobs in America. The list still looks woefully short-sighted and parochial.

About 18 million American workers earn less than $9 an hour. Every job in CareerCast’s list pays at least twice that. Yes, many of the jobs on the list are dangerous, grueling or unpleasant, but offer someone making $14,500 a year as a full-time minimum-wage worker a chance to double their income by becoming a roofer, lumberjack or oil rig worker and most of them would jump at the chance.

Even setting aside income, most of those minimum-wage jobs are less desirable than the jobs on this “worst jobs” list simply as work. It’s menial, laborious, repetitive, frustrating, uninspiring drudgery and many of the millions stuck in those minimum-wage jobs would gladly switch places with a flight attendant, meter reader, mail carrier or newspaper reporter even if it didn’t involve a huge pay raise.

CareerCast’s “worst jobs” list is the sort of thing that could only be written by people who have enough money and who aren’t able to imagine what it would be like not to.

And so is this article: “Yes, money can buy you happiness.”

The news hook for that story is a study that doesn’t actually say what the story tries to make it say. The study has to do with sufficiency. The story twists that into a statement about necessity. Those are not the same thing.

Here’s what we humans already knew and have known since before we started writing things down: Money is not sufficient for happiness. Money is necessary to avoid certain forms of unhappiness.

It’s really not that complicated. It only appears complicated to those who: A) have enough money; and B) don’t have enough happiness.

The word they don’t understand there is “enough.” This is not entirely their fault, because much of our culture is based on preventing any of us from understanding that word. But it’s a really important word — particularly when the subject is happiness.

The elusiveness of “enough” is, in fact, the main finding of the study reported in the story linked above: “Subjective Well‐Being and Income: Is There Any Evidence of Satiation?” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institution.

Stevenson and Wolfers found that more money corresponds with greater well-being. Matt Yglesias notes that their study shows this correspondence “on a logarithmic scale“:

That’s to say that a $5,000 increase in per capita GDP will generate a lot more happiness for a poor country than a rich one. And by the same token, a $5,000 increase in income will generate a lot more happiness for a poor family than for an affluent one. This is a key grounds for believing both in the importance of economic growth and in the importance of concern about the distribution of that growth. To be a little crude about it, halving the income of a millionaire will let you double the income of many poor households.

But the other thing about this logarithmic scale is that it indicates no evidence of what Stevenson and Wolfers call “satiation” — no point at which anyone anywhere seems able to say, “Ah, at last, enough. Now I am content.” Seeking satiation — sufficient happiness — from money alone offers asymptotically diminishing returns.

All of which, again, confirms what we humans have known for a very long time.

No, money cannot buy happiness. But it is necessary for buying necessities without which happiness is nearly impossible.

Having enough money is no guarantee of happiness. Not having enough money is a guarantee of unhappiness.


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