_
_
_
_
_

Indigenous peoples may hold the key to money-free happiness

While many studies find a link between subjective wellbeing and higher income, there are exceptions

Indigenous peoples
MARTA SEVILLA

In 2012, British couple Adrian and Gillian Bayford won €190 million in the Euromillions lottery. Months later, they were divorced and subsequently ended up marrying people who cheated on them. They also fought with their families and fell into debt due to poor investments. In 1988, William Post won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery in the U.S. A year later, his brother paid a hitman to assassinate him so he could inherit his fortune. Post survived, but ended his life more than a million dollars in debt.

Stories of lottery winners who end up broke abound. Whether or not they are merely anecdotal is open to debate. A much-cited report said to come out of the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) in Denver, U.S., suggested that 70% of lottery winners are broke within five years. In 2018, the organization denied any study of theirs had drawn such conclusions and blamed the confusion on an individual attending a meeting organized by NEFE in 2001, who came up with the figure. Subsequent studies suggest that lottery winners fare better with their winnings than without, and estimate a bankruptcy rate of less than 6%. However, following the NEFE’s denial, that 70% figure has continued to be published, as if there is a need to believe that money does not bring happiness. Many scientific studies, however, say otherwise.

In a recent paper on the subject, Matthew Killingsworth from Pennsylvania University and Daniel Kahneman from Princeton tested their own findings on the relationship between money and emotional well-being. Kahneman had observed in a 2010 study that well-being, at least among Americans, increases with income until $75,000 per year. After that, there is no happiness bonus. Meanwhile, with his Track Your Happiness app that asks users questions about how they feel at random times of the day, Killingsworth concluded in 2021 that money continued to increase happiness well beyond $75,000.

Now, in their joint study, designed to settle their discrepancies, the researchers observed that both were somewhat right: for 80% of people, earning more money never ceases to have emotional benefits, but that leaves 20% for whom an income of $100,000 a year and above does not translate into a commensurate boost in happiness.

Money alone does not bring happiness, but it allows us to do things that make us feel better. One of the ways to achieve this, for both rich and poor, is to spend money on other people. Obviously, the rich can afford to do this more. Another factor that is related to subjective well-being is good social relationships, and it seems to be easier to have them with high socioeconomic status. In general, although people who earn more money may sometimes put in very long working hours, they tend to have more control over how they organize their time than people who earn less and who, in many cases, also work long hours.

However, with something as nebulous as happiness, it is unreasonable to think that its pursuit can be reduced to income. Economist Richard Easterlin argues that, once basic needs are met, increased income does not necessarily increase well-being. According to his data, time spent with family or taking care of one’s health has a more lasting impact than money, which loses its effect like a drug to which one becomes habituated. “People spend a disproportionate amount of time on money-related goals,” he says.

According to Easterlin, this is down to the fact that individuals believe their aspirations will be the same now as in the future instead of increasing in accordance with their earnings. People fail to cotton onto this because, when asked about how they felt in the past, they assess themselves against present material aspirations rather than the lower ones of yesteryear. “As a result, most individuals devote a disproportionate amount of their lives to earning money and sacrifice family and health, areas where aspirations are fairly constant even when circumstances change,” says Easterlin.

The relationship between money and happiness is even more complex. A few days ago, the scientific journal PNAS published a study that measured the life satisfaction of people living in globally marginalized societies. In several cases, they were members of Indigenous populations with very few economic resources — between $500 and $1,000 per head in terms of assets. Despite this apparent poverty, among the Mapuches of Lonquimay, a mountainous region in southern Chile, the level of satisfaction reported is 8.1 out of 10. In the Amambay region of Paraguay, the Guaraní score 8.2, the Collas of the northern highlands of Argentina 8, the Tibetans of Shangri-La 7.9, and the Ribeirinhos of the Brazilian Amazon 8.4. On the same scale, the European Union in 2021 had an average of 7.2 and Austria, the happiest country, an 8.

Eric Galbraith, a professor at Barcelona’s Autonomous University and the PNAS study’s principal author, believes that the positive results from many of these communities may have to do with the comparison factor or lack of it. “People are always comparing themselves to others, and those of us who live in monetized societies have money as an obvious way of comparing ourselves to other people, and we may feel satisfied if we have enough money or more than the people around us,” he says. This comparison factor is evident in other analyses, which flag up the fact that the advantages of earning a lot of money and the problems of having very little are more extreme in more unequal societies. This means that where there is less equality, the link between income and happiness is stronger due to our tendency to compare.

Galbraith conducted his study in order to analyze the impact of climate change on societies on the margins of the industrial world. He believes that future focus on what can generate happiness without the need for exacerbated economic growth can help us understand how to improve our well-being without depleting natural resources. In some of the societies with the best happiness scores, there is a strong sense of community, a close bond with nature and a deep spirituality that may explain their perception of well-being. “Perhaps, with a targeted social effort over a couple of decades, we can learn to recover these values in our societies and be able to increase subjective well-being beyond what economic growth would allow; that would be my hope,” says Galbraith.

Marino Pérez, from the Spanish Academy of Psychology, is skeptical about the usefulness of measuring happiness to guide public policies and achieve a population that is more satisfied with their lives. “Happiness means nothing,” he says. “It depends on each individual in each moment and the society to which they belong. In the past, happiness had to do with leading a virtuous life, being interested in the common good and not with this individualistic and subjectivist outlook, typical of developed countries, and in particular of Anglo-Saxon countries, where happiness is measured by comparing oneself with others.” In his opinion, the well-being of the traditional societies in Galbraith’s study may be due to the fact that “these people are not concerned with happiness, but are busy with the tasks of life.”

Easterlin observed that, although individual happiness is consistently associated with income, when analyzing a country’s level of happiness, there is no link between this level and economic growth. There is data that may support this paradox: despite economic growth in recent decades, the mental health of the younger population is increasingly worse. Pérez argues that, on the one hand, “consumer capitalism is based on individuals being encouraged to be dissatisfied with what they have and wanting things they don’t have,” a madness that “we can spread to traditional societies.”

Moreover, Pérez believes that “the preoccupation with happiness is one of the causes of the mental health problems we are seeing in Western societies and in new generations. Seeking happiness is an unhealthy business,” he adds. “Happiness is something retrospective rather than prospective.” Given this departure point, we should probably spend time remembering and realizing that we were happy, even if we did not know it at the time.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
_
_