In Weekend Herald columnist Mary Holm's new book, Rich Enough? A Laid-Back Guide for Every Kiwi, she talks about happiness versus making money.
A few years back, I taught a course on financial literacy to non-business students at the University of Auckland. It included a discussion on the relationship between money and happiness.
In one exercise, I asked students to rate the happiness of people they knew, and then think about what made them seem so happy or unhappy.
The students came up with all sorts of replies – to do with health, family relationships, how hard people work, helping others, the ability to travel, social circles and so on. Some responses were about personalities – whether people are optimistic and whether they feel gratitude and appreciation.
As the students called out their replies, I wrote them on the blackboard in two lists. At the end, I asked why I had some replies in one list, and some in the other. Someone always realised quite quickly. The items in the shorter list cost money. The items in the longer list did not. It became pretty clear that money doesn't seem to be the main source of contentment.
We then looked at another pair of lists, as compiled by Nick Powdthavee in The Happiness Equation, as follows:
• Jobs with the lowest job satisfaction: roofers, waiters/ servers, labourers (except construction), bartenders, hand packers and packagers etc.
• Jobs with the highest job satisfaction: clergy, physiotherapists, firefighters, education administrators, painters and sculptors etc, teachers, authors, psychologists, special education teachers, operating engineers.
"What can we learn from this?" I asked the students. Once again, a bright spark worked it out. Most of the highly satisfying jobs involved creativity or significant interactions with people. What they didn't involve was particularly high pay. Where were the doctors, lawyers, accountants and chief executives?
The students and I also discussed research on big winners in lotteries. While some winners seemed to be happy, others were miserable. How could you trust the sincerity of any new friend you made? For many winners, a year later they were about as happy or unhappy as they had been before their big win. As Powdthavee said, people tend to adapt to good and bad things – getting married, or the death of a loved one – faster than they expect to.
Then we turned to spending, and research that finds you're likely to be happier if you:
• Buy experiences instead of things. Things get old, but experiences – concerts and shows, being out in the wilderness, travel, or just spending time with friends – stay shiny in your memory.
• Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.
• Pay now and consume later. Anticipation is part of happiness. Also, you enjoy it more when you know the bill is already paid.
• Spend on others instead of yourself.
I've got no idea how many of the students were convinced by their reading and the discussion. But I like to think they walked away at least pondering whether the common drive to accumulate more wealth is what life is all about.
Money, couples and family relationships
One thing that came up frequently when the students talked about why they scored people as happy or unhappy, was relationships between couples and among family members. And money certainly plays a role in this, although more money doesn't necessarily mean more harmony.
Relationship Services has reported that financial differences are the biggest reason for relationship breakdown. They recommend that couples talk about their attitudes to money, preferably before problems arise. But if they've already arisen in your relationship, it's not too late. Start by asking one another how money was dealt with when each of you was growing up.
The experts point out that sometimes a relationship difficulty is not really so much about money as about how financial decisions are made. It's a good idea to agree on this.
Often problems surface around shopping. Note that research at Stanford University found that "contrary to popular opinion, nearly as many men as women experience compulsive buying disorder, a condition marked by binge buying and subsequent financial hardship".
Moving beyond couples to the broader family, if parents are giving more financial support to one adult child than to his or her siblings, it's often a good idea to discuss this with the others to avoid accusations of favouritism. The siblings may agree that one of them needs extra help, perhaps because of bad luck or ill health. One possible solution: uneven treatment may be evened up later with provisions in a will.
The joys of spring
Does your happiness change with the seasons? UMR looked at this over several years and found that happiness rises from the start of the year until March, and then falls to its lowest point in July, in the depths of winter.
But as July ends, our happiness swings back up, reaching its highest point of the year in September. It stays about the same through spring, but falls slightly heading into December and the Christmas rush. All quite predictable when you come to think about it.
Happier than most other countries
How do New Zealanders compare with the rest of the developed world on happiness?
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which has 38 member countries including us, puts together a Better Life Index, which is a bit of an eye-opener.
Key message: It seems that New Zealanders' happiness might be less tied up with income than in many other countries.
The OECD looks at 11 wellbeing factors. New Zealand's highest score is for health (we're first out of 38, with a score of 9.6 on a scale of 1 to 10), and our second highest score is for our general satisfaction with life (9.1).
Meanwhile, our lowest score is for income (3.5). We have below average household disposable (after-tax) income, and below average household wealth.
• We get a high score for community (95 per cent of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, compared with 89 per cent across the OECD).
• We also do well on environmental quality (which measures air pollution, water quality and so on).
• We're pretty good on jobs, but not so good on work-life balance.
• We're above average for civic engagement (voter turnout etc), housing, education and skills.
• But – somewhat surprisingly – we're below average for personal security (feeling safe walking alone at night, and the murder rate).
To check out this fascinating research, and to see where New Zealand ranks compared with any other country or all of them, go to www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org. You can also create your own index on this intriguing website, giving more importance to some factors and less to others, and check out gender differences.
Last words on happiness
The Harvard Business Review put it this way: "People who make progress every day toward something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled".
American broadcaster Andy Rooney put it this way: "Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you're climbing it.'
And Chris Anderson, head of TED, wrote in his book TED Talks, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking: "We're strange creatures, we humans. At one level we just want to eat, drink, play, and acquire more stuff. But life on the hedonic treadmill is ultimately dissatisfying. A beautiful remedy is to hop off it and instead begin pursuing an idea that's bigger than you are."
Meanwhile, the UK Government's Foresight Programme offers these five pointers for lifelong wellbeing:
1. Connect with people around you.
2. Be active – do physical activity that suits you.
3. Be curious – watch for the beautiful or unusual.
4. Keep learning – anything. It might be a musical instrument, or how to cook.
5. Give – to a friend or a stranger. Volunteer.
What's not on the list?
Where do you rank on the world's rich list?
Feeling hard done by? Go to www.globalrichlist.com. By answering a couple of questions about your income, or your wealth, you can find out roughly where you rank in the world. You might be surprised.
• Rich Enough: A laid-back guide for every Kiwi By Mary Holm Published by HarperCollins New Zealand