DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness” Cuts Both Ways

Earlier I explored the argument, sometimes made by critics of personal growth, that practices for cultivating peace and happiness, like meditation and affirmations, are socially harmful.  By encouraging people to "look within" for happiness, rather than basing their satisfaction on material rewards, personal growth makes people less interested in righting the economic unfairness of our society.

In other words, if people become convinced that "money doesn't buy happiness," they'll be less interested in redistributing income toward the less well-off -- because, after all, having more money won't make lower-income people happier anyway.  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Bright-Sided, "if circumstances play only a small role . . . in human happiness, then policy is a marginal exercise.  Why advocate for better jobs and schools . . . or any other liberal desideratum if these measures will do little to make people happy?"

I don't think this critique fully grasps the implications of the "money doesn't buy happiness" theory.  To left-wing critics like Ehrenreich, this concept seems to counsel fiscally conservative policies like cutting taxes and rolling back the welfare state.  In fact, however, one could use the assumption that money doesn't buy happiness to support policies more to Ehrenreich's liking.

Taxes and Happiness

One might argue, for instance, that because wealth doesn't determine our happiness, we might as well increase taxes on the rich.  If it's really true that money doesn't buy happiness, redistributing wealthy people's income won't decrease their wellbeing or their incentive to produce.  And if the ex-wealthy find themselves pining for their lost assets, perhaps they can just take up meditation and make it all better.

In fact, my friend Duff -- who, I suspect, shares many of Ehrenreich's political views -- makes a similar point in discussing Daniel Pink's Drive.  Pink, says Duff, argues that people are more motivated by a desire for "autonomy, mastery, and purpose" in their work than the promise of material rewards.

If this is so, Duff writes, why not have the government impose a "maximum wage" -- for instance, cap everyone's annual income at $100,000?  After all, reducing wealthy people's income won't substantially diminish their happiness, since studies show that their work satisfaction largely depends on their sense of meaning.

So, it seems, the notion that happiness doesn't depend on material rewards can be used to support either conservative or liberal economic policies.  My larger point is that the idea that personal development is the linchpin of a right-wing conspiracy is misguided.  So, too, is the idea that personal growth somehow promotes socialism -- which we'll explore in the upcoming series on self-development's "culture of victimhood."

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development and the "War on Envy"
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?
  • Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
    1. Money matters an awful lot until you have the necessities (socially defined). It is after this that money stops mattering much for happiness.

      Seeing your children starve or having to sleep rough doesn’t help with happiness.

      Until this is addressed the argument by either side is too crass to be taken seriously.

    2. Hi Evan — yes, that’s an important qualification, and I think everyone I mentioned in this post would acknowledge that what we’re really talking about is the point of “diminishing marginal utility” from money, not whether money has any importance for our happiness at all. In other words, the question is really: at what level of annual income (or whatever measure) does money cease to matter so much to the average person? And that threshold is clearly above zero.

      But granting that, if there is *some* point at which the returns from having more money begin to significantly diminish, I think the critics on both sides could still make some version of their argument.

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