I’m quite happy with my height. To my mind at least, I’m tall enough. 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 at this point in my life, 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
A growing trend among some young Americans is to track their personal finances and rank themselves on specially created websites against other users recently caught my eye. 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. Milo Benningfield, a financial planner who urges his clients to stop thinking about other people and think instead about what they want and need, says: “I tell them to think of this as a topography of the choices you’re making about how you’re spending your lives. The only question I have is whether these are the choices you want to be making as you move forward. I think that takes the pressure away from looking right and left to other people around you and focuses it on your own life goals and your own vision of success.”
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.”
Data used by the researchers from a nationwide Bureau of Labour Statistics survey on how people with varying household income levels spend their time, showed that people with higher incomes devote relatively more of their time to work, shopping, childcare and other “obligatory” activities. Women surveyed by the researchers in Ohio associated those activities with “higher tension and stress.” People with higher incomes spend less time on “passive leisure” activities such as socialising or watching television, which the respondents viewed as more enjoyable.
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 right in front.
“If economic growth is not the main route to greater happiness, what is?” Easterlin asks. “We may need to focus policy more directly on urgent personal concerns relating to things such as health and family life, rather than on the mere escalation of material goods.”
In other words, focus on your network rather than your net worth and chances are that you will be a lot happier.
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 good-looking titbits we like about Christianity, 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.
And when in doubt, turn to a child. For the most part, they haven’t yet learned to filter what they say and tend to give it to you right on the chin. As illustrated by the 10-year old who, when asked her 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!’
Frances Williams: Editor of ReConnect Africa and CEO of Interims for Development.
IMAGE CREDITS: https://www.elephantjournal.com