Decent people take comfort in the idea that money is not profoundly connected with happiness.
There are statistics that suggest that as income increases happiness does not rise to an equal degree; and that beyond a modest threshold, money does not make a big difference to one’s happiness.
It’s a likeable thesis: it cheers for the underdog. It spits in the eye of money – and most people have been humiliated or disappointed by money at some time or other; there is a pleasure of revenge.
Deep down we know that it would be too terrible if money could – by itself – cause happiness, with the clean causal power by which, for instance, alcohol makes us drunk.
If money were a sufficient cause of happiness, the world would be truly hellish. If money, gained in whatever way (by undetected fraud, by sheer luck, by being above the law) and spent in whatever way (on tinsel, on securing flattery, on satisfying one’s most irresponsible and transient wishes) reliably produced happiness (the most desirable of all human conditions, the proper objective of our striving), how could one explain such an arrangement? Only a malevolent designer could create such a hideous order of things.
But to win this point is not really to achieve much. For the question is not can money pure and simple produce happiness? The question is rather what connections, of more subtle kinds, there may be.
By an unfortunate series of cultural events this crucial question has come to seem mean-spirited and philistine. It sounds cruel to ask: how can money produce happiness? Or, more provocatively, how can you buy happiness?
In fact, this line of investigation deserves the utmost devotion of philosophical effort; we should treat it with the loving intelligence that went into working out the secret laws of nature.
The first thing we have to do is look more closely at the idea of happiness. When we talk of happiness we sometimes mean a state of inner buoyancy, a sensation of inner satisfaction. And one can well imagine that money has only limited long-term effects on such feelings.
But that inner state of buoyancy is not the true aim of most people’s lives. Of course, we all want to feel good about ourselves, not worry too much and not be depressed.
Unless we have been kicked into desperation by life, we really don’t see the big issue as “how yummy do I feel?”
Instead we see the issue as how much do I believe in what I am doing; what is the state of my self-respect? Do I give my life to worthy ends. How fully can I realise my higher nature. Have I served the good I see and the good I long to see?
I believe that such concerns are true to human aspiration – and that few people would worry that they will bring with them a fair degree of anxiety, anguish, worry and disappointment. We’re not made of porcelain.
In fact, what we usually mean by a happy life is flourishing. Flourishing is a semi technical term – the standard way of stating the realisation of a person’s best potential. If you live in a thuggish culture, or just a vulgar or silly one, it is certainly possible to feel good about yourself; but that would have little to do with realising your best potential or developing and exercising your best capacities. While feeling good about yourself seems to have natural limit, the good exercise of your capacities can always increase.
Flourishing – or the larger, deeper ideal of happiness – is like beauty; it is an emergent property. An artist cannot endow a picture with beauty by adding one magical ingredient. But all the elements, worked together in the right way, may produce a ravishing portrait or a gracious still life.
It is perfectly clear the mere possession of money does not enable a person to make the kinds of choices, or undertake the kinds of activities that constitute a flourishing life.
Goethe provided us with a central metaphor here. In his novel Whilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship – written in the last decade of the 18th century – he writes: “life lies before you, like a huge quarry before an architect. He does not deserve the name of architect unless out of this chance mass of material he can, with maximum economy, fitness and durability fashion a dwelling place” - that is, make a life.
The material is diverse - external and internal (character traits, genetic endowment, nurture, historical circumstance …); it is fortuitous because you do not choose it; it is a mass before it is organised. But what you do with it depends upon your ideas, abilities, inspiration, drive, ambition, appetite to face difficulties and overcome them, the beauty of your ideals and the refinement of your taste.
His point is that, of course you can have all kinds of resources – and money is just the abstract name for resources – but not know how to use them to make anything wonderful.
On the other hand, a skilled person, with the right attitude of overcoming problems and making much out of little, can produce something admirable and fine with apparently unpromising materials. (And how much more, one might think, such a person could do if they were granted a bit more access to the quarry.)
Flourishing, in the eyes of Goethe, is not something that happens apart from the resources we happen to have to hand.
The mantra of happiness tends to invite us to be poor – to tell us that we already have far too much, and that money, things etc are not ways of being happy. It plays up to inner bolshevism: the idea that a human being really doesn’t need all that much by way of material resources.
But, if one thinks, as I do, that every person deserves to live in a city as gracious as Bath, or with as rich a culture as Edinburgh, that many more people need the time to think for themselves and the stimulus and guidance to cultivate their inner lives; that we all need a lot more dinner parties, and many more leisurely conversations in which our minds can meet – then really we are saying that we need two things: we need more material prosperity, we need more resources but we also need to use those resources in a more enlightened way – as architects of our own flourishing.
Republished with permission of The Conversation.