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The Pursuit of Happiness Reconsidered

An Essay by Joseph A. Holt

We are a nation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, especially through the acquisition of material wealth. Observing our zeal for commerce, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, in Democracy in America, “...I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts.”

The poet William Wordsworth lamented that "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers," even before the advent of shopping meccas like Dublin's Grafton Street.

Recent surveys indicate that grip remains strong. David G. Myers observes in The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty that the most common answer received by interviewers from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research when they asked respondents what most hampered their search for the good life was “We’re short of money.” The most frequent answer to the related question of what would most improve respondents’ quality of life was “More money.”

The UCLA/American Council of Education annual survey of approximately 250,000 entering college students attests that the importance of money has not been lost on our youth. As Myers notes, “...The proportion considering it ‘very important or essential’ that they become ‘very well off financially’ rose from 39 percent in 1970 to 74 percent in 1998.”

Does money promise more than it can deliver in the way of happiness? Have we been duped into allocating too much of the most precious assets we have, our limited time and energy, into monetary pursuits at the expense of more promising non-monetary sources of happiness such as loving relationships, good health, meaningful work, and community involvements? Recent studies in the economics of happiness, a new field populated by economists, psychologists and other social scientists, indicate the answer to both questions is “Yes,” and that it seems we would be happier if we devoted more of our limited time to non-monetary rather than monetary concerns.

Myers describes “the American paradox” referred to in the title of his book as follows: “We now have, as average Americans, doubled real incomes and doubled what money buys [over the past 40 years]...And we have less happiness, more depression, more fragile relationships, less communal commitment, less vocational security, more crime...and more demoralized children.”

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz reports that the decreasing marginal utility of wealth as considered within a nation at different times is not restricted to the United States. In Japan, for example, there has been a five-fold increase in per capita wealth over the past 40 years, when that country moved from near-third world conditions to relative affluence, again with little or no increase in individual happiness.

Schwartz further explains that lack of a correlation between increased wealth and increased happiness is also evident across nations at a given time: “You find as many happy people in Poland as in Japan, for example, even though the average Japanese is almost ten times richer than the average Pole. And Poles are much happier than Hungarians (and Icelandics much happier than Americans) despite similar levels of wealth.”

It is important to see that the link between income and happiness is stronger in those struggling for survival below the subsistence level of income. The absence of pain and suffering determines happiness as much as the presence of pleasure, after all, and economic hardship in the lives of the poor, the daily struggle to get by without enough money for food, clothing, shelter and medical care for one’s family, wears down the human spirit, causes distress and physical suffering, and undermines dignity and hope. People in wealthy countries are generally happier than people in poor countries, and within a nation those above the poverty line are generally happier than those below it. But there comes a point where additional wealth yields little, if any, additional happiness. In fact, one ranking of life satisfaction among 15 groups found that the Pennsylvania Amish were as happy as those in the wealthiest sector of the United States. Schwartz explains: “Once a society’s level of per capita wealth crosses a threshold from poverty to adequate subsistence, further increases in national wealth have almost no effect on happiness.”

* * *

Those of us who have crossed the threshold from poverty to subsistence and are free to reflect on how to live most happily, do well to remember that millions of our fellow inhabitants on earth have not crossed that threshold and continue to struggle on a daily basis to live at all. Studies on global poverty reveal that 4-5 billion of the earth’s 6 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and that there has been no improvement in poverty in the world’s 50 poorest countries in the past decade. Studies on poverty in the United States reveal that one in four American working families is “low income”—i.e. earning less than $36,784 or twice the stated poverty level and, therefore, struggling to survive—and that the percentage of American families living in poverty has not changed in three decades, despite the economic prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s.

Our happiness and well-being as individuals and as a society is diminished to the extent we fail to live in harmony with our deepest values and beliefs, and our deepest values and beliefs require providing for those who truly cannot provide for themselves.

If we are preoccupied with our own material well-being, we are less likely to see, let alone care for, any of those 5 billion people living on less than $2 a day. I am challenged in this regard by the example of the rich man in the parable in Luke 16:19-31, who is condemned not because he is wealthy but because he fails to see and assist the poor man, Lazarus, sick and hungry at his gate. I am challenged to ask how many of the more than two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants living on less than $2 a day I have ever helped, spoken with, or even seen.

There is no doubt, in any case, that not caring actively for the poor is no more an option for a believer in the Judeo-Christian tradition in which the University of Notre Dame stands than not playing in tune is an option for a member of a symphony orchestra; in both cases the failure at issue diminishes a desired harmony the production of which is at the core of the group’s very reason for being (see, also, the Last Judgment Scene in Mt. 25:31-46 where the criterion for judgment is effective responsiveness, or not, to those in need).


I am mindful of the poor in part because I write under the inspiration of certain muses whose pictures grace my desktop on a daily basis, reminding me of what the poor have to teach us about the independence of joy from wealth. The first picture is of a gentleman from Nigeria, an older man who is blind, who lost both his legs below the knees to leprosy, and who is smiling beatifically as he works in the fields surrounding the leper colony, and as he did each day I was blessed to cross his path during the summer I spent in Nigeria as a Jesuit.
The second picture features children from a refugee camp in the Palestinian territories that I visited last August, a camp in which approximately 10,000 refugees live in a one square kilometer area. These beautiful children, too, are smiling with no apparent cares in the world. I keep these pictures before me as a daily reminder that if my muses can smile notwithstanding their difficult material circumstances, there is no reason I shouldn’t be smiling as well. The humbling recognition of that fact leaves me hungry for insights into the paradox of increasing wealth and decreasing happiness in our society.

* * *

To begin with, we are apparently poor judges of the correlation between income and happiness in our lives. In The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Robert E. Lane reports that most people believe they would be “much more satisfied with their lives” with a 25 percent pay increase, “but those whose incomes are now at that higher level are not, in fact, happier or more satisfied with their lives.”

In “Explaining Happiness” Richard A. Easterlin sheds light on our misallocation of time to monetary over non-monetary concerns based on our overestimation of material attainments. He explains that we each have important goals with respect to different areas of well-being—material security, family life, health, etc.—and a certain level of attainment with respect to those goals at any given time. Lasting increases in happiness occur when the gap between our attainments and aspirations in these different areas of well-being is reduced.

With respect to non-monetary sources of happiness such as health, meaningful work, and close, stable relationships, aspirations are relatively steady such that attainments in those areas of our lives reduce the gap between our aspirations and our attainments and produce lasting increases in happiness. In fact, Schwartz observes, the richest source of happiness is apparently close social relations: “People who are married, who have good friends, and who are close to their families are happier than those who are not. People who participate in religious communities are happier than those who do not. Being connected with others seems to be much more important to subjective well-being than being rich.”

Where money is concerned, our aspirations rise to about the same extent as our actual gains, leaving us no closer to the fulfillment. Happiness functions in our lives like the mechanical rabbit at the dog races, motivating our efforts but forever eluding our grasp no matter how hard we run.

Easterlin clarifies that we misallocate time and energy because we take our aspirations to be fixed and fail to see that our aspirations will rise due to hedonic adaptation and social comparison. We habituate upward or downward to new levels of happiness, and they no longer make us happy (or unhappy, if we have moved down a level rather than up a level of happiness). Social comparison also leads to increased aspirations in that we count ourselves happy not because we have what we need in any absolute sense, as when we have enough to eat, but because we are doing well in comparison to relevant others (who may be co-workers, neighbors, family members, et al.).

The dynamic of social comparison was captured well by none other than Karl Marx when he observed, “A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But if a palace rises beside the little house, the little house shrinks into a hut… [and] ... the dweller will feel more and more uncomfortable, dissatisfied and cramped within its four walls.” I am reminded of the lawyer convicted in the insider trading scandals of the 1980s who was asked why he ran such risks when he was already earning more than $1 million annually, and who responded that he became dissatisfied with his mansion upon seeing Ivan Boesky’s considerably larger mansion. He did not need additional room for a growing family, but rather additional support for an inflated and easily threatened ego.

Enjoying the undistracted presence of others on a Sabbath evening in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.

When I worked as a corporate associate in Chicago law firms in the 1990s, first year associates earning $73,000 annually aspired to entry-level wardrobes, one bedroom condominiums, late model used cars, and vacation trips to California. When major law firm starting salaries jumped from $73,000 to $125,000 within two years, wish lists grew to include Elie Tahari and Prada rather than Ann Taylor and Banana Republic, a new BMW rather than a used Toyota, a two bedroom condominium closer to the lake rather than the one bedroom or studio further inland, and foreign rather than domestic travel. As salaries increased further the desire for travel abroad was superseded by the desire for a vacation home, and so on. New aspirations arose as old ones were satisfied, and to about the same extent. The particular objects of desire changed but the persistent intensity of desiring did not, and attainment of the goods sought was an emotional sugar pill that produced a temporary high but no lasting increase in happiness.

Easterlin’s research suggests that many of us missed a fork in the road to happiness when we moved from poverty to adequate subsistence, and that, to invoke Robert Frost’s poetic imagery, it would indeed make “all the difference” if we retraced our steps and returned to the fork to take “the road less traveled” to happiness. Easterlin summarizes the results of that research as follows: “…[M]ost individuals spend a disproportionate amount of their lives working to make money, and sacrifice family life and health, domains in which aspirations remain fairly constant as actual circumstances change, and where the attainment of one’s goals has a more lasting impact on happiness. Hence, a reallocation of time in favor of family life and health would, on average, increase individual happiness.”

In “Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being,” Ed Diener and Martin E.P. Seligman provide a partial formula for success on the road less traveled: “Live in a democratic and stable society that provides material resources to meet needs...Have supportive family and friends...Have rewarding and engaging work and adequate income...Be reasonably healthy and have treatment available in case of mental problems...Have important goals related to one’s values...Have a philosophy or religion that provides guidance, purpose, and meaning to one’s life.”

* * *

It is almost midnight as I finish writing this essay, and I have just finished an enlightening conversation with my University of Notre Dame co-worker, Mike “Nez” Nesbitt. Nez came into our Executive Education office space to empty the trash and vacuum the carpet and made the mistake of asking me what I was working on at this hour. I told him and asked him whether he was happy.

He replied that he is quite happy because he had performed difficult work for more than 16 years in a South Bend slaughterhouse and felt blessed to have landed a job at Notre Dame in a clean and healthy environment in which people were nice to him and he no longer had to work from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. He is happy also to be in good health and have two healthy daughters of whom he is proud. Nez finds additional happiness in kids in his neighborhood looking to him as someone to talk to and in being able to talk some of them into getting off the street and out of gang life. Furthermore, Nez recently found a new church community where he feels connected, appreciated, and inspired. He is inspired also to be taking positive steps toward realizing his dream of owning his own cleaning business. Finally, and not surprisingly, Nez is happy because he is “right with the Lord” and grateful to the Lord for another day of life.

I have another muse, and I’m inspired by the thought that perhaps being happy isn’t as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be.

—Joseph A. Holt is Director for Executive Ethics in the Executive Education program at Mendoza College of Business. He spent 11 years as a Jesuit seminarian and priest, has worked as a stockbroker, a corporate attorney, and a college professor. Holt teaches and consults in the areas of values-based decision making and business ethics, spirituality in the workplace, and business law.

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