Well-Being, and the New American Dream by
David G. Myers
Does money buy happiness? Not! Ah, but would a little
more money make us a little happier? Many of us smirk and nod. There is,
we believe, some connection between fiscal fitness and feeling fantastic.
of us tell Gallup that, yes, we would like to be rich. Three in four entering
American collegians—nearly double the 1970 proportion—now consider it
"very important" or "essential" that they become "very
well off financially." Money matters.
It’s the old American dream: life, liberty, and
the purchase of happiness. "Of course money buys happiness,"
writes Andrew Tobias. Wouldn’t anyone be happier with the indulgences promised
by the magazine sweepstakes: a 40 foot yacht, deluxe motor home, private
housekeeper? Anyone who has seen Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous knows
as much. "Whoever said money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it
right," proclaimed a Lexus ad. No wonder many people hunger to know the
secrets of "the millionaire mind" and some would sell their souls to
marry a millionaire.
are rich people happier? Researchers have found that in poor countries, such as
Bangladesh, being relatively well off does make for greater well-being. We need
food, rest, shelter, social contact.
a surprising fact of life is that in countries where nearly everyone can afford
life’s necessities, increasing affluence matters surprisingly little. The
correlation between income and happiness is "surprisingly weak,"
observed University of Michigan researcher Ronald Inglehart in one 16-nation
study of 170,000 people. Once comfortable, more money provides diminishing
returns. The second piece of pie, or the second $100,000, never tastes as good
as the first.
Even lottery winners and the Forbes’ 100
wealthiest Americans (when surveyed by University of Illinois psychologist Ed
Diener) have expressed only slightly greater happiness than the average
it big brings temporary joy. But in the long run wealth is like health: Its
utter absence can breed misery, but having it doesn’t guarantee happiness.
Happiness seems less a matter of getting what we want than of wanting what we
our happiness, however, floated upward with the rising economic tide? Are
we happier today than in 1940, when two out of five homes lacked a shower or
tub? When heat often meant feeding wood or coal into a furnace? When 35 percent
of homes had no toilet?
Consider 1957, when economist John Galbraith was
about to describe the United States as the Affluent Society. That year,
Americans’ per person income, expressed in today’s dollars, was $8700. Today
it is $20,000. Compared to 1957, we are now "the doubly affluent
society"—with double what money buys. We have twice as many cars per
person. We eat out two and a half times as often. In
the late 1950s, few Americans had dishwashers, clothes dryers, or air
conditioning; today, most do.
So, believing that a little more money would make
us a little happier and that it’s very important to be very well off, are we
indeed now–after four decades of rising affluence--happier? Are we happier
with espresso coffee, caller ID, suitcases on wheels, and Post-It notes than
are not. Since 1957, the number of Americans who say they are "very
happy" has declined from 35 to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the divorce rate has
doubled, the teen suicide rate has nearly tripled, the violent crime rate has
nearly quadrupled (even after the recent decline), and more people than ever
(especially teens and young adults) are depressed.
I call this soaring wealth and shrinking spirit
"the American paradox." More than ever, we have big houses and broken
homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility. We
excel at making a living but often fail at making a life. We celebrate our
prosperity but yearn for purpose. We cherish our freedoms but long for
connection. In an age of plenty, we feel spiritual hunger.
The radical individualism and materialism that
marked late 20th century America–what Garrison Keillor has called
our "elephantine vanity and greed," or what Jesse O’Neill calls our
"affluenza"–has afflicted other countries somewhat less. Yet
the paradox is not exclusively American. In Britain, for example, sharp
increases in the percent of households with cars, central heating, and
telephones have not been accompanied by increased happiness.
These facts of life explode a bombshell
underneath our society’s materialism: Economic growth has provided no boost
to human morale. It’s not the economy, stupid.
individuals who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower well-being, a
finding that "comes through very strongly in every culture I’ve looked
at," reports University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan. His
collaborator, Tim Kasser, concludes from their studies that those who instead
strive for "intimacy, personal growth, and contribution to the
community" experience a higher quality of life. Ryan and Kasser’s
research echoes an earlier finding by H. W. Perkins among 800 college alumni
surveyed, those with "Yuppie values"—who preferred a high income and
occupational success and prestige to having very close friends and a close
marriage—were twice as likely as their former classmates to describe
themselves as "fairly" or "very" unhappy.
We know it, sort of. Princeton sociologist Robert
Wuthnow reports that 89
percent of people say "our society is much too materialistic." Other people are too materialistic, that is. For 84 percent also wished they had more
money, and 78 percent said it was "very or fairly important" to have
"a beautiful home, a new car and other nice things."
Two principles drive this psychology of
consumption. The first is our human capacity for adaptation. Once adapted to a
new level of affluence, it takes a higher high to rejuice the joy. I can recall
the thrill of watching my family's first 12-inch, black-and-white television
set. Now, if the color goes out on our 25-inch TV, I feel deprived. Having
adapted upward, I perceive as negative what I once experienced as positive.
helps explain why, after a period of adaptation, lottery winners and paralyzed
persons report roughly similar levels of happiness. It also explains why
material wants can be insatiable—why many a child "needs" just one
more Nintendo game. Or why Imelda Marcos, surrounded by poverty while living in
splendor as wife of the Philippines' president, bought 1060 pairs of shoes. When
the victor belongs to the spoils and the possessor is possessed by possessions,
adaptation level has run amuck. (The phenomenon is, however, bidirectional: if
forced to simplify our lives, we would eventually adapt and recover our normal
mix of emotions. If another energy crisis curbs our "need" for
gas-slurping sport utility vehicles, we would, after temporary feelings of
deprivation, again adapt to smaller cars.)
second principle is our penchant for social comparison. We are always comparing
ourselves with others. And whether we feel good or bad depends on who those
others are. We are slow-witted or clumsy only when others are smart or agile. When one baseball player signs for $10 million a year his $7 million teammate
may now feel dissatisfied. (Evolutionary psychologists reason that men seek to
accumulate and display more resources than other men for the same reason
peacocks compete in tail displays: to compete for female attention.) Further
feeding "luxury fever" (to borrow the title of Robert Frank’s
stimulating book), is our tendency to compare upward: as we climb the ladder of
success or affluence we mostly compare ourselves with peers who are at or above
our current level.
Upward comparison is not inevitable: Just as
comparing ourselves with those who are better off creates envy and consumerism,
so comparing ourselves with those less well off boosts our contentment. In one
study, even just imagining and then writing about various personal tragedies,
such as being burned and disfigured, led the participants to express greater
satisfaction with their own lives. "I cried because I had no shoes,"
states a Persian saying, "until I met a man who had no feet."
Moreover, one has to wonder, what’s the point
of luxury fever? "Why," wondered the prophet Isaiah, "do you
spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does
not satisfy?" What’s the point of accumulating stacks of unplayed CD’s,
closets full of seldom worn clothes, garages with luxury cars—all purchased in
a vain quest for an elusive joy? And what’s the point of leaving significant
inherited wealth to one’s heirs, as if it could buy them happiness, when that
wealth could do so much good in a hurting world?
As social consciousness rouses, more people are
beginning to veer off the well-traveled road of materialism and individualism. A
new American dream is taking shape, one that:
- encourages initiative and restrain
exploitation, thus building a more compassionate market economy that shrinks the
- welcomes children into families with mothers
and fathers that love them, and into an environment that nurtures families,
- protects both basic liberties and communal
well-being, enabling diverse people to advance their common good in healthy
- encourages close relationships within extended
families and with supportive neighbors and caring friends—people who celebrate
when you’re born, care about you as you live, and miss you when you’re gone.
- develops children’s capacities for empathy,
self-discipline, and honesty,
- provides media that offer social scripts of
kindness, civility, attachment, and fidelity,
- regards relationships as covenants and
sexuality not as mere recreation but as life-uniting and love-renewing,
- takes care of the soul, by developing a deeper
spiritual awareness of a reality greater than self and of life’s resulting
meaning, purpose, and hope.
Harbingers of this renewal are already emerging,
like crocuses blooming at winter’s end.
People are beginning to understand the costs as
well as the benefits of the unbridled pursuit of the old American
dream—individually achieved wealth. In increasing numbers, neighborhoods are
organizing, foundations are taking initiatives, youth are volunteering, scholars
are discerning, faith-based institutions are tackling local problems, and civic
renewal organizations are emerging. Government and corporate decision-makers are
becoming more agreeable to family-supportive tax and benefit policies. Many are
developing a renewed appreciation for the importance of our human bonds. A new
communitarian movement offers a "third way"—an alternative to the
individualistic civil libertarianism of the left and the economic libertarianism
of the right. It implores us, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, "to
choose between chaos and community," to balance our needs for independence
and attachment, liberty and civility, me-thinking and we-thinking.
Fulfilling the new American dream need not return
us to the impoverished past or destroy the incentives of a market economy. But
it will require our seasoning prosperity with purpose, capital with compassion,
and enterprise with equity. Is such transformation in consciousness–from
materialism to postmaterialism–possible? It has happened before, and it could
- As the marked change in sexual values and
materialism since 1960 illustrates, cultural values are not static. Are there
signs that the late 20th century materialism is abating? Might the 21st century become the "postmaterialist" age? Or will free market
competition, combined with our human tendencies to adapt to new pleasures and to
compare with others, fuel a continually spiraling materialism and consumerism?
- Can educating people about the modest
connections between wealth and well-being -- and about the greater important of
positive traits, close relationships, and faith communities -- contribute to a
more humane and environmentally healthy world? Or is mere knowledge unlikely to
be persuasive, much as knowing the perils of smoking fails to liberate a
- Is my vision of a new American dream
hopelessly utopian? Is it too much to hope that we might complement our
expanding social ambulance services at the base of the social cliffs with newly
constructed guardrails at the top? Or was President Clinton right when telling
the 1998 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting that
"We must envision the future we intend to create"?
About the Author
Social psychologist David G. Myers professes
psychology at a place called Hope (Michigan’s Hope College). His writings have
appeared in two dozen scientific periodicals, from Science to the American
Psychologist, and in more than two dozen magazines, from Scientific
American to Christian Century. Among his dozen books is The
Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy, and Why (Avon). His textbooks, Psychology,
Exploring Psychology, and Social Psychology, are studied by
students at some 1000 colleges and universities.
Found at The Center for the New American Dream www.newdream.org Used by permission.