‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The words of the US Founding Fathers did not immortalize the acquisition of wealth or the quest for an ever-increasing standard of living. They recognized that not only was happiness striving for, but also that it was not the automatic consequence of, material prosperity. Their 21st century descendants may have lost sight of this particular self-evident truth.
Chasing the dream . . .
Melancholy millionaires and sad superstars are the stuff of everyday news. At the same time, sociologists and psychologists echo the wisdom of our grandmothers when they advocate that strong personal relationships, good health and benevolence towards the disadvantaged, rather than money and possessions, are the keys to contentment. Yet the average person in affluent western society is the opposite of content, striving for an ever larger paycheck. The higher salary bracket inevitably leads to an increased quantity of desires, which seem to promise ultimate happiness if only they can be gratified. Such a life may often seem as rewarding as that of a mouse on a treadmill.
. . . or downsizing
Is there then, a counter argument which says that spending less, using less, owning less, will automatically steer mankind in the opposite direction, on the road to harmony and paradise? Many have embraced the popular movement towards downsizing and simplification of everyday life. The theory is that the ownership or consumption of an excess of stuff leads to debt, and by reducing or eliminating debt we will inevitably be happier. Even those not in debt can derive a benefit from a frugal lifestyle by ceasing to worry about money, by de-cluttering, by not having to service unnecessary assets, and possibly by spending less time working.
The consequences of this frugality do not necessarily stop there. Directing expenditure away from restaurants and convenience foods in order to reduce costs may actually lead to a healthier diet centered on homegrown and home-cooked vegetables. Working less because your needs are reduced leaves you free to spend quality time with your loved ones, and your relationship with your partner and your children may blossom as a result. Living more frugally may allow you to tick the boxes for the healthy body and satisfying personal relationships which are supposed to line the path to lasting happiness.
The reality of poverty
This is all very admirable and idealistic, but there is an inescapable truth: poverty and happiness rarely go hand in hand. Anyone living below the poverty line is unlikely to agree that their particular level of frugality is a source of contentment. The reality is that living frugally is only likely to bring happiness if it is a matter of choice, not of necessity. Wealth does count to a degree, as indicated by a 2006 study by the University of Leicester in Britain, which concluded that health care, basic education and a low level of poverty were the most likely contributors to the general happiness of a nation’s population. Those countries where the bulk of the population lived in poverty tended to show up near the bottom of the list.
Wealth helps, in moderation
Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology and best-selling author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, emphasizes the idea that money does matter, but only as a means of satisfying basic needs. Once these have been met, greater wealth does not equal greater happiness. “Psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness,” he says “and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter.”
So it seems that neither abject poverty nor excess wealth are likely to bring true contentment. As usual, the middle road is the best path to tread. This means embracing the core values of a frugal lifestyle, where they lead to greater physical and emotional well-being, and directing any resources which are genuinely beyond our needs towards helping others. The Founding Fathers might well have agreed that these truths were self-evident.