Modernist Watch: Money and Happiness

Catchy headlines sell newspapers.  Given that industry’s trouble state, we shouldn’t be surprised to see an uptick in the “desperation-for-relevance” department.  Especially from the poor Boston Globe which is still up for auction.

In a piece titled, Happiness: A buyer’s guide, staff writer Drake Bennett reports on some interesting “new” ideas on the relationship between money and the good life.  The main ah-ha is that money might be able to make us happy, if we spent it the right way.  For some reason, however, most of us end up spending money on ourselves and getting more stuff instead of on others and experiences.

The piece is interesting and worth reading, but one line jumped out at me as an example of the modernism that we here at Humane Pursuits find troubling:

Despite millennia of folk wisdom on the topic, it wasn’t until a decade ago that researchers started to take a hard look at whether money really does have anything to do with happiness.

Only scientific research, from the last decade, has uncovered the true connection between wealth and satisfaction?  Maybe, but only if you are a good modernist rejecting tradition and revelation.

As interesting as the research Bennett presents might be, the claim to “newness” is really only explainable by the Globe‘s need to get eyeballs to advertisers.

Even before the 1990s, self-interest and virtue have been thought to have an important relationship.  For Christians and many others, the argument that humans are more satisfied by virtue is obviously sensible.  Pagan philosophers like Aristotle believed pursuing self-interest, or happiness, was ultimately fulfilled by living well.

The research Bennett presents confirms that satisfying our base passions never leads to happiness.  Base passions in this instance being our unquenchable desire to consume self-oriented stuff.  Instead, research shows that we should spend money on what amounts to seeking other people’s good, or loving others.

Jesus was on to this fact and more:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.

But the Boston Globe won’t avoid bankruptcy by reporting that.

(HT: Arts & Letters Daily)

1 Comment

  • Bryan Wandel
    September 8, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    On statistical study of happiness and money, I recall Charles Murray hitting on it in “In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government” (1989), where he gives statistics showing that happiness corresponds strongly with income up to a certain level (somewhat above subsistence), then levels off. He does this to emphasize the State’s role, which should not extend beyond that economic threshold, after which economics (and to him, the State) is irrelevant.
    On philosophical study of happiness and money, I can’t help but bring up my favorite passage from Arendt. In analyzing the mindset of the French Revolution, she sees it going out of control when egregious poverty is released onto the scene of politics. This was inherent in Rousseau’s mawkish pity, but it took the national chaos following the fall of the Bastille to really unleash a political force that was codependent with political actors (the republicans and the Parisian middle class who had pity on the poor). Such poverty as existed in France at the time was suddenly in their face, and their reactions were prepared by Rousseau’s emotive sensationalism.
    One reason the American revolution was different is that, while we had poor people, there was little wretched poverty, due in part to natural abundance on the continent, and due in part to the simple fact that American society was an escape from the suffocating social conditions of Europe. America DID, however, fall to the same conditions with the influx of massive immigration of “the wretched refuse” of Europe.
    2 problems with putting this kind of poverty front and center in politics:
    1. The aristocracy have of course desired wealth, but their general characteristic is the enjoyment of wealth. Thus, amidst some extravagance and indulgence, the aristiocrats have also been the leaders in the highest ways life can be enjoyed. The dreams of the aristocrats were ultimately that of higher virtue, higher achievement, etc. The dreams of the poor have been taking in massive amounts of money. This dream can be carried forward when the poor advance their material condition but have not natural leaders in “enjoying the good.” Thus, American lust for massive amounts of lucre may have its roots in American poverty, which actually came after the Revolution.
    2. When the relationship to poverty is characterized by pity, poverty cannot really be meliorated. First, this is because pity is an emotion, and people have a tendency to love their emotions, even the negative ones (because they FEEL). Valorizing pity ultimately means there needs to be something pitied. Second, pity emphasizes the ground in between the pitier and the pitiable. Solidarity, on the other hand solves one of the truly inhumane problems of poverty: that the impoverished person has no voice in public and social affairs, and is marginalized in his social being because he cannot speak on equal terms. Solidarity is the necessary, correct, and human remedy.