Do peace, love and understanding really trump money?
A new historical study says that, past a certain level, money isn’t a key to happiness
“Greed, for a lack of a better word, is good” — Gordon Gekko, “Wall Street” (1987)
For much of our country’s history, facilitating the pursuit of money and the stuff it buys — to lift ourselves and our families out of a condition of material scarcity — has been the most fundamental objective of our government and dominant culture.
Defenders of that belief — such as Gordon Gekko, with his “greed is good” speech in the movie “Wall Street” — have argued that approach is the best way known to secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But are they right?
An ingenious new historical study suggests the answer is “not so much, especially after a certain point.”
The report, recently published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, analyzed the United States and three large European countries between 1820 and 2009 and concluded that:
- Only a big increase in a country’s income boosts its level of happiness.
- Medical care and public health breakthroughs that increase life spans by a year improve happiness more than big economic upswings. (It takes as much as a robust 4.3 annual percent uptick in total gross national product to compare to getting that extra year of life. The U.S. GNP has risen that much only three times in the past 35 years, all during the late 1990s.)
- Each additional year of peace creates as much happiness as a 30 percent increase in a country’s income.
In what may be a sign of progress, the study also found that the low point for happiness in the U.S. through 2009 was at the end of the Vietnam War, almost 45 years ago. (I look forward to the extension of the study through the 2010s, when the GNP has steadily grown, but happiness hasn’t seemed to keep pace.)
The study estimated “national levels of happiness” via an innovative methodology. The researchers utilized artificial intelligence software to review the “sentiment valence” of language used in books, magazines and other printed literature that were published during the span of the study and available in digitized form via Google Books.
For me, the results pass the smell test. As the chart below of the levels of happiness in the United Kingdom and the United States illustrates, people aren’t happy during economic depressions and wars. This would be expected. But the table also shows that the happiness quotient remains low during economic boom times if that period corresponds with a war and/or cultural conflicts (see figures during the 1960s). In retrospect, it’s no wonder that The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” was such a hit at the same time the U.S. GNP was growing at a now-unimaginable 6 percent annual rate.
The analysis is also consistent with other recent studies that find that, once people reach a certain income level, additional money doesn’t translate into more happiness. A 2018 report found that “satiation occurs at $95,000 [per household] for life evaluation and $60,000 to $75,000 per household for emotional well-being.” In other words, people looking back on their lives felt they got no more satisfaction if their household made more than $95,000 per year, while, when asked how they were feeling right now, they didn’t feel any better if they made more than $60,000 to $75,000. (Note: The average American household has 2.6 members.)
In many cases, earning more than the threshold resulted in less happiness.
For a huge chunk of American families, especially those whose head of household is between 35 and 64 (most of whom are making more than the national median), there’s little-to-negative happiness benefit from policies aimed at increasing economic growth. At the same time, there are plenty of health, psychological and environmental downsides to the usual proposals laid out by politicians, economists and pundits stuck in the old “conquering scarcity is job no. 1” paradigm.
For plenty of Americans, this means that while more money will bring some additional happiness, it’s not nearly as valuable as a nice helping of peace, love and understanding.
On a macro level, these studies also help explain how growth in either GNP or wages hasn’t always helped the presidential party in office retain the White House. Just ask Presidents Al Gore, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. When material needs are largely satisfied, many people aren’t primarily motivated by how to get their next dollar. Instead, their minds turn to power, cultural, spiritual and health issues.
Even when “times are good,” there will always be Gordon Gekkos, who are driven by greed. (Keep in mind that he wound up in jail, just like Ivan Boesky, the real-life financier on whom Gekko was based.) Financial ambition can be a virtue in the right hands. However, unless there is an unprecedented economic meltdown, the future will increasingly belong to those who prioritize tackling post-scarcity problems such as the environment, public health and alienation.
They’ll be the ones nodding along approvingly to Elvis Costello as he sings “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”.