From the October 2013 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

October 1, 2013

Rich Ape vs. Rich Human

The Wall Street Journal and NBC News recently conducted a poll, part of an annual series that seeks to determine how Americans rank in terms of happiness.

“Money may not buy love, but it seems to buy happiness,” the Journal concluded, finding that wealth was the single biggest factor in distinguishing between the happy and non-happy in the survey of 496 people.

Don’t believe it. First of all, the survey was all over the map: Retirees, Hispanics and Americans in the Western U.S. came out happiest; Southerners and impoverished Americans headed the miserables list.

Might it have been cool and overcast in Atlanta while L.A. was bathed in sunshine the day the survey was conducted? Might the survey size be too paltry to make statistical inferences for so many groups of Americans?

(The results zig-zagged quite a bit, with Americans over 65 the happiest while the least happy were the adjacent category of 50- to 64-year-olds.)

There are surveys about everything, and some are well done while others are poorly designed. A good rule of thumb is to treat skeptically any survey whose results fly against common sense (which typically, though not always, corresponds to reality).

Thus your own experience likely tells you that money does not buy happiness. Financial advisors are the group closest to Americans and their wealth and can see up close that millionaires, much like the poor, may be less happy than the merely “comfortable”—and for the same reason. Both are prone to extreme money worries.

It is easy to see how those struggling to put food on the table experience profound anguish, as would a millionaire who is the target of a lawsuit or a billionaire whose children are taking an unenergetic approach to their own lives and careers.

And yet a poor person who performs exhausting manual labor but can feed his family probably sleeps with much more satisfaction than many CEOs. Happiness really just depends, but primarily on non-financial factors.

Human beings are not apes who, if materially satisfied, will play without a care in the world. A rich ape (i.e., one with an abundant supply of fruit and nuts) would not worry that her offspring lack motivation or can’t sustain personal relationships.

But rich humans are never satisfied because for us money is but a means but is not by itself meaningful. It is through the refinement of character, the building of relationships and the expenditure of effort to achieve worthy ends that we are likeliest to find happiness regardless of our economic, social or demographic standing.

Financial advisors are in the money business and need to know that that is not the same thing as the happiness business, that living a good life is far likelier to bring contentment than what is widely regarded in our materialistic society as the good life.

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