Now for the bad news: Money does not buy happiness.
In one sense, that’s what the 2012 presidential election was about.
President Barack Obama was in a middle, sorta, kinda, nuanced reformist promise-keepers mode, using jobs, health and education as an index to what he had done and would continue doing. Now, with the election over, he talks bolder.
But we miss declarations like those of Robert F. Kennedy, who challenged his student audience at the University of Oregon in 1968, “Each time a man stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” He followed up by paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why'; I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not.’ ”
Challenges like that take us beyond our narrow interests and circumstances into the public realm.
In the election, GOP nominee Mitt Romney represented a mechanistic, monetized mindset, with “can’t get no satisfaction” misrepresentations to entice remaining party loyalists, other prep-school bullies and new reactionaries. Winning was all that mattered, truth be damned. Rich was right.
Last August, right before the Republican convention, the Pew Research Center released “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class.” In this report on a nationally representative survey, 85 percent of self-described middle-class adults found their circumstances more difficult than a decade ago. Asked how much income a family of four would need for a middle-class lifestyle, the median response was $70,000 among those who labeled themselves middle class. They said it would take at least $100,000 to be rich.
Research now consistently shows that money brings happiness only insofar as it lifts people out of poverty, author John Robbins points out on Greater Good, a website of the University of California, Berkeley. Beyond that point, the link between money and happiness is very small.
For example, some studies rank the people of Sweden and Denmark among the happiest and most prosperous in the world, with scores at or near the top on quality of life, happiness and social well-being, Robbins writes.
But the same studies suggest the people of Costa Rica are actually happier, though their per-capita gross domestic product is a fourth of Denmark’s and Sweden’s.
Guatemalans have one-tenth the income level of Americans, but they’re happier. The people of Honduras are as happy as those in the United Kingdom, with only 12 percent their per-capita GDP.
Robbins says the data show that, above the poverty line, “the more you look at the data comparing people’s monetary wealth with their levels of happiness, the harder it is to see any correlation at all.”
As for politics, we should be wary of leaders who propose fear or greed as the basis for their policies.
A teaching by the eighth-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva has a bearing on this. He said that lower consciousness sees everything as separated, whereas higher consciousness sees everything as connected.
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Email [email protected]