Happy happy, joy joy

I trained down from LA to San Diego yesterday, and took the opportunity to listen to a podcast of this Ted Talk about what makes people happy. Dan Gilbert, the speaker, starts out with an interesting statistic: a year after the event that changed their lives, lotto winners and paraplegics report equal levels of happiness. He argues that this is about context. Paraplegics come to accept their condition, and take joys in the pleasures still available despite their condition. Lotto winners adjust to a new, expanded framework of what is possible, and thus buying a Maserati doesn’t deliver the same pleasure as it would have when they were earning $50,000 a year.

This ties in with some similar thoughts I’ve read in regards to happiness related to income levels. In a book (quoted at the link), Dan Gilbert addresses the topic.

Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, 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. Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year.

This would seem to be something of a political double edged sword. On one hand, it seems that income disparity — a big target of the left — is not really the cause of unhappiness, it’s poverty. If you get people’s basic needs met, they don’t need much else. On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit, so touted by conservatives, doesn’t seem to pay off. Working that extra 40 hours a week won’t make you much happier.

Of course, this is a topic full of uncertainty. There are many other economists quoted at the link who disagree with these assertions. On top of that, you have to wonder how many people answer the question “how happy are you?” honestly. And, do people even really know how happy they are? If you’re happy because you’re swallowing Prozac or shooting heroin once a day, does that really count?

1 Response to “Happy happy, joy joy”


  1. Morality without god? at My So-Called Penis

    [...] Humans are primates, but I presume De Waal is referring to nonhuman primates, unless he has cages of people and is feeding them grapes and cucumbers. However, the described behavior is the kind of thing we see people doing every day. They’re perfectly happy with what they’ve got, until they read about some millionaire with a goldplated swimming pool and suddenly they become miserable with their lot in life. (Though, as readers of this blog know, money doesn’t equal happiness.) [...]