Consider wandering through a relatively poor community in the Western world.

Stereotypically, these regions have high crime rates, higher rates of drug use and lower levels of physical health. Growing up, these were parts of the city that my parents strictly forbid me from visiting.

Take a single evening venture through one of these neighborhoods and it isn’t too difficult to appreciate why. The scent of illicit drugs lace the streets, hooded youth roam local parks late into the night and, on occasion, violence erupts.

Growing up, it was constantly preached to me that I was to succeed academically, get a good job, make money, avoid living in such “troubled” areas and find happiness. It was such an apparently simple formula that so many people never seem to achieve. But why?

Perhaps it is not that simple.

When I was younger, I had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka, a small island nation located just south of India. It is the country where both my parents spent the entirety of their childhoods. Neither of them came from a particularly wealthy household, but in observing their families’ demeanors, I concluded they were happy in a very pure sense of the word.

On the surface, at least, they appeared to be mentally healthier than many of their more economically fortunate counterparts that I observed on the other side of the globe. This made me think, how could people who consider meat a delicacy only afforded on special occasions be so content? How could they not live in envy of the advances of the Western world?

This is not to say that all inhabitants of underdeveloped nations have mastered the art of eternal happiness. In 2018, Forbes ranked Finland, followed by several other Nordic nations, as the “happiest countries in the world.” Canada didn’t do too badly either, falling in seventh place. This observation seems to suggest that excessive wealth is neither necessary nor sufficient for happiness.

Historically, income and happiness were thought to be strongly correlated. However, newer research suggests that “happiness” may have fundamentally different origins depending on social class.

Specifically, lower-class individuals tend to co-depend on other members of society to satisfy their basic physiological needs. The positive emotions they experience may be directed more at others (such as compassion and love). Wealthier individuals are largely self-sufficient, and their positive emotions may be correspondingly directed to the self (such as pride).  

Happiness and income do not appear to have a linear relationship. A study looking at income and measures of social well-being (including life evaluation and positive affect) on a global scale found, on average, life evaluation reached its peak at an income of $95,000. Positive affect reached its peak at $60,000.

Beyond this point, there was no increase in these measures with increasing income. In fact, life evaluation scores began to decrease.

In an era where comparing ones’ self with peers is accelerated by various social media platforms, understanding this simple fact can be very helpful:

Happiness does not appear to infinitely increase with wealth.

In fact, one could argue that, past a point, increasing income may fuel desire, creating an insatiable cycle.

In the quest for happiness, we should direct our attention elsewhere. Thinking back to the strong social bonds I witnessed in the developing world, perhaps enhancing our interpersonal relationships is a good place to start.

By Tharshika Thangarasa

Categories: Articles