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Editorial – What Price Happiness?

I’m quite happy with my height. It’s only when I’m standing next to other people that it becomes apparent to me that, at 5’ 3”, a good few people are taller than me.

But if there’s not much I can do about my height, what about money? While I am under no illusion that my bank balance keeps Warren Buffet up at night worrying about the competition, I do sometimes wonder if his bank balance is having a negative effect on my life.

In other words, while heroes and role models are great to have, is the urge to rank ourselves against others a source of inspiration, or one that shows up some impossible goal?

This aspect of humanity can be a profound problem, according to Andrew Oswald, a professor of behavioural science at the Warwick Business School. “We’re now extraordinarily rich by almost any standard of human history. But because we are creatures of comparison, it’s harder to get happier and happier.”

Net-Worth or Self-Worth

Knowing your net worth is much more interesting, the thinking goes, when you have someone else with whom to compare it.

But just knowing that your net worth is greater than someone else’s is still not likely to make you happier because net worth is not necessarily an indicator of financial security. According to Spencer Sherman, author of The Cure for Money Madness, net worth is “an irrelevant number”. After all, he says, “If people have a billion in net worth and are spending half a billion in a year, they’re really poor.” Based on their spending, he points out, they’re on track to be broke in 24 months.

So, what exactly are we measuring? As it turns out, it’s more than likely to be our self-worth rather than our personal wealth.

“We’re now extraordinarily rich by almost any standard of human history. But because we are creatures of comparison, it’s harder to get happier and happier.”

Does Money Buy Happiness?

According to a study by Princeton University professors, Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman, while most people believe that having more income would make them happier, the researchers found that the link is greatly exaggerated and mostly an illusion. While income is usually assumed to be a good measure of well-being, according to the study, people with higher incomes do not necessarily spend more time in more enjoyable ways.

The study concluded that people with above-average income “are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities."

These findings seem to hold true not just at a personal level but also at national levels. Countries that rank highly in economic data are not necessarily those whose citizens are deemed the happiest. A collaborative paper by economist Richard Easterlin, a specialist in the field of happiness studies, showed that across a worldwide sample of 37 countries, rich and poor, ex-Communist and capitalist, over the long term, a sense of well-being within a country does not go up with income.

So, what does make us happy? No surprises, dear reader: it’s what’s right in front of us. The trouble is that when we are anxiously scanning what others alongside us are doing, it’s easy to miss what’s already there.

In other words, focus on your network instead of your net worth, and chances are that you will be a lot happier.

Buffet Comparisons

Our former priest used to urge the congregation not to be ‘buffet Christians’. He wasn’t talking about Warren, but about our tendencies to pick the bits of Christianity we like while ignoring the edicts that are too hard to follow.

It’s an analogy that works on other levels.

When you get pangs of envy looking at someone’s life, a good trick I recommend is to ensure you envy everything about them. Not just the beautiful house but the hours of time they lost with their spouse or children to acquire it; not just the gleaming car but the loss of a loved one that may have funded it; not just the holiday home, but the loneliness or isolation they may feel when staying in it. In this game, you can’t cherry pick the bits you want from someone else’s life; it’s all or nothing.

If in doubt, turn to a child. They haven’t yet learned to filter what they say and tend to give it to you straight. As illustrated by Daughter Two who, when asked about this topic, looked up briefly from her iPhone to say firmly: ‘There’s no point wanting what other people have, you’ll just make yourself miserable. You should just be grateful for what you’ve got!’


Author of the novels ‘Imperfect Arrangements’ ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

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