There is an article in today’s Contra Costa Times about a professor’s search for the root of happiness. USC economist Richard Easterlin discovered something that, to an economist, seemed astonishing. Money does not buy happiness.

Most people realize that there are other important factors that affect our happiness, including harmonious relationships with those closest to us. But many persist in believing that just “a little more” material wealth would provide the missing ingredient that is needed for them to find happiness.

Happiness is difficult to measure, but there have been attempts to correlate people’s perceived happiness with their economic condition. The results are interesting:

Data available from 1946 to 1970 led him to put forth what became known as the Easterlin Paradox: Even though the average U.S. family became more than 60 percent richer, it didn’t make Americans significantly happier. In late 1947, about 42 percent of Americans surveyed by one pollster pronounced themselves “very happy.” Although the numbers went up and down over the decades, a similar poll found that only 43 percent declared themselves “very happy” in 1970.

In a study of 20 different countries, Easterlin found that within a given country the rich reported greater happiness than the poor. But when you compare countries it gets interesting. The US was the country with the greatest happiness in the study, but Cuba finished second. Apparently absolute levels of wealth do not provide a very good predictor of happiness.

The conlcusion of the article provides a key insight:

Particularly in the United States and other wealthy nations, “we’re just so many times richer than our grandparents were that we can afford to think, ‘Do we actually need more money now?'” said Andrew Oswald, a British economist widely considered one of Europe’s foremost happiness researchers.

Easterlin’s explanation for the unbudging national sense of well-being is that, despite cultural differences that predispose some countries to be happier than others, an all-too-human fact of life transcends borders. The more a nation has, the more its people expect, sinking the chance that a society’s greater wealth will lift all spirits.

Which explains a comment from UC Irvine economist Michael McBride. “People ask me all the time, ‘What do you learn about happiness? What’s the secret to happiness?'” McBride said. His standard answer, only half-kidding: “Low expectations.”

Our expectations play a critical role in happiness. If your expectations are very high, then you are very likely to be unhappy because those expectations are unlikely to be met. We’ve all seen or heard about a poor child who is filled with joy over receiving a simple toy, while a wealthy child with a room full of of toys is unmoved. Lower your expectations, and you will be happier. Yet the suggestion that we lower our expectations seems to be very counter-intuitive. Aren’t we supposed to “aim high” and “go for the gold”?

This question forces us to re-examine the way in which we view material wealth. Perhaps Dr. Easterlin would benefit from the insights of a man falsely accused, mistreated and put in prison, yet wrote about the joy that he felt. Life was certainly not “going his way,” yet he experienced a seemingly unshakable joy. Let’s look at what this man wrote about material wealth.

In Phil. 4:10-12 Paul reveals the secret of happiness, at least as far as economic condition goes. That secret is contentment. Paul had learned how to be content with a little or a lot. When he had abundance, he enjoyed it with a thankful heart. When he was impoverished, he continued to trust God to provide for him. Either way, he did not let his life revolve around his possessions. There is much that we can learn from his example.

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