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What is Happiness?

What is happiness? According to a podcast from the Philosophers’ Zone its many things and that is the cause of many of the disagreements and confusion about the subject. The podcast split the concept into 6 different areas but I think it can be simplified into two: a short term but more true type which could be associated with pleasure or enjoyment, and a longer term but more abstract idea associated with contentment or satisfaction.

So why am I talking about such an abstract and possibly pointless topic here? Well it gets back to how many studies which have been done on the subject of happiness seem to produce partly consistent and partly conflicting results, and I wanted to explain why!

Specifically I want to mention studies which examine the link between financial success and happiness, in other words: does having more money make you happier? Well the answer is yes… and no. Like many questions in the area of human psychology it is complex.

The consensus seems to be that up to an income of about US$40,000 people do get happier. Especially up to $27,000 people become rapidly happier as their income increases. After $40,000 the result depends on the exact methodology used until you reach $125 million and after that people start getting rapidly happier again!

In the area between $40 thousand and $125 million the result shows either no real difference at all or a slight but real increase as income increases. When happiness is measured using techniques which look at what psychologists call positive/negative affect there is no difference but when life satisfaction is measured the result is a slight increase.

The first technique measures the real mood of people as they would report it at an instant of time and the second is a more introspective report of their satisfaction with life in general.

The first seems more genuine so from that we could say that, after a certain level is met, people don’t get happier as they get more money (until you reach that figure of $125 million but that is probably the result of measuring the response of people with unusual personalities)

The second seems to be measuring how happy people think they should be rather than how happy they really are. So maybe people think that they get happier as they get richer but in fact don’t. The point is that happiness is not a well defined concept so when analysing results of experiments or studies measuring it you should be cautious.

So if we lived in a society which wanted to maximise happiness (at least the component of happiness associated with money) we could redistribute the wealth so that everyone gets at least US$40,000. Of course that would never happen but its an interesting idea.

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