On Wealth and Happiness

In the weekend edition of the Financial Times, dated 5 September 2015, a front page article carried the title: ‘UK number crunchers conclude that money can make you happier after all’. The article was based on surveys carried out by the UK Office of National Statistics, and claimed that the result of the surveys disproved the widely supported thesis that higher levels of income do not bring more personal happiness. Specifically however, according to the ONS survey, it was net financial wealth (which might include cash under the mattress) that was associated with increased happiness, whereas: ‘physical assets such as antiques, yachts or cars […] had no relation to personal well-being’. So contrary to the claim of the article’s headline, this conclusion is hardly surprising. Net financial wealth offers people, whatever their level of income and wealth, some degree of security – which is certainly associated with greater ‘happiness’. Mr. Micawber said something very similar in David Copperfield: ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.’ The fact that physical assets make no difference to perceived happiness is indeed in line with, rather than in contradiction to, other studies that have been done on the matter.

Income and happinessThis diagram shows the result of one such international study on the correlation between the proportion of people ‘happy and satisfied with their life as a whole’ to per capita income of the country concerned. Broadly it shows that at relatively low levels of average income, where many people will be struggling to satisfy their basic needs reported happiness is low, but from middle income countries onwards this proportion tends to level off, making very little difference indeed among those countries with a high average income. While the conclusion may seem plausible the methodology of such studies is debatable. First, is the issue of how happiness is identified and indeed how easily the word and the concept can be translated into different languages and cultures. The second problem is that the income X-axis can extend to infinity, whereas the happiness, Y-axis, is constrained to lie between 0% and 100%. This of itself is bound to lead to some ‘levelling-off’ in the resultant graph.


One thought on “On Wealth and Happiness”

  1. I’m reading a very interesting book at present – Inequality and the 1% by Danny Dorling , a clear and readable account of the damage wrought by extreme inequality. Danny Dorling is a Prof of Geography at Oxford and I heard him talk at the Hay Festival.

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