Happiness researchers are convinced that people in Western societies place too much emphasis on material goods and economic growth. There is the (ill-founded) claim, repeated in Schwartz’s Foreign Policy piece, that we believe GDP to be a proxy for broader well-being. The micro version of this claim, also made by Schwartz, is that we personally place too much emphasis on material goods:
But, consistent with a substantial body of research showing that we generally don’t know what’s good for us, when the money was flowing we substituted risk for security. We sacrificed time with friends and family to spend more time at work accumulating wealth and more time after work figuring out how to spend it. (emphasis added)
Richard Eckersley makes similar arguments in the local context:
The evidence shows material progress does not straightforwardly make us richer by giving us the freedom to live as we wish. Rather, it comes with an array of cultural and moral prerequisites and consequences, such as prioritising money and the things it buys. This affects how we think of the world and ourselves, and the choices we make. These choices are not optimising human health, wellbeing and potential
Of course, people make mistakes in their lives. But do most people really think that money is the route to happiness?
When Australians have been asked about their life priorities they never reply as if most believe that more money should come first. In 1978 an Age/Saulwick poll asked its respondents about their most important goal in life. The most popular response, on just under a half, was ‘a family life’. Only 9% met the expectations of the money equals happiness debunkers. They wanted, as the survey put it, a ‘prosperous life—having a good income and being able to afford the good things in life’.
In 1999 the Australia Institute released a study on quality of life which let its respondents rate more than one goal as ‘very important’. 38% said that ‘more money to buy things’ was very important to improving their quality of life. But two-thirds nominated ‘less stress and pressure’, and three-quarters ‘more time with family and friends’. Most people concur with the researchers in regarding family and friends as ‘very important’, but this survey doesn’t explore the trade-offs between them and other goals.
Another poll, the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, helps us see which choices people would make if given the chance. It included a question about ‘personal aims’ over the next five years. 56% said ’spend more time with my family and friends’ was their top aim. Just over a fifth of respondents nominated ‘achieve a higher income’. A separate question on job alternatives found that most people— nearly two-thirds — preferred the same hours and money, while 10% wanted to work fewer hours and earn less money, and 22% of people wanted to work longer hours and earn more money.
The 2007 Australian Survey of Social attitudes asked respondents to agree or disagree with the proposition ‘other things in my life are more important to me than my financial future’. 20% disagreed, or in other words 20% were suggesting that their financial future was their most important priority. Of that 20%, 60% agreed with the proposition that ‘I worry a lot about my financial future’. This is consistent with previous research finding that materialist attitudes correlate not with wealth, but with poverty.
On happiness, I think the folk wisdom is about right. A good standard of living is one attribute of high well-being, but so too are intimate relationships, friends, work, and leisure activities. The right balance isn’t the same for everyone, and it isn’t necessarily the same for any one individual at all stages of his or her life. But balance is a central concept. People who place priority on financial matters typically do not believe that money alone will make them happy, but do believe that this is the biggest source of well-being imbalance in their lives. I’d trust their judgments of their own lives rather than the collective judgments handed down by the happiness paternalists.