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As presented in the TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (3:30) repeated research has been unable to show a correlation between happiness and level of material wealth (above a certain minimum threshold).

As a result, a line of reasoning that is often made is:

"We should stop pursuing more wealth, since attaining it will not make us happier."

While i agree that we can conclude from this research that attaining more wealth will not make us happier, i don't think we can conclude that the amount of effort we put into pursuing more wealth has no influence on our happiness.

There is anecdotal material to show that putting less effort into the pursuit of wealth makes you happier, take Zen monks for example, but there are a lot of other factors that could be causing their increase in happiness.

  • What research has examined the merit/effect of detachment from material wealth?
  • To what extent is pursuing or not pursuing wealth related to happiness?

EDIT: Happiness, as roughly defined by any of the known measurement methods.

share|improve this question
Voluntary poverty as a concept comes to mind. In the modern America there are also people who advocate "less is more"- in general this means owning less stuff. –  Alex Stone Feb 22 '13 at 5:02
Thanks, googling on "voluntary poverty" gave me this article. Quite interesting, since it mentions a lot of findings that seem to contradict the data of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and it makes some points in the direction of what i'm looking for: bridgesandtangents.wordpress.com/tag/voluntary-poverty –  Wouter Feb 22 '13 at 8:37
It might be worth looking at this question from the perspective of success; if success is important in personal happiness, wealthy people who did not succeed on their own terms (who inherited, for example) might have very different "happiness" than wealthy people who are wealthy because they succeeded at something. Possibly also relevant is how exactly happiness is operationalized (contentment/satisfaction? joy? lack of negative affect?) and whether different operational definitions would give different answers. –  Krysta Jun 17 '13 at 14:27
Good question (+1) I don't have an answer but note that jumping from a (apparently) cross-sectional absence of link to a causal story of the kind presented by Csikszentmihalyi is a little questionable. That richer people do not report being happier on average does not mean they, personally, would not be less happy if they were poorer (and vice versa). –  Gala Aug 6 '13 at 6:38
Apparently there's research out there showing that -having- goals is essential to happiness, but achieving them is not necessarily so. That goals function as a tool to provide happiness in the present. I'll get back if i find some references. –  Wouter Oct 11 '14 at 10:53

1 Answer 1

up vote 1 down vote accepted

In alignment with the question author's commentary refinement, "It would already be a nice and useful answer if there was -any- clue on -any- type of happiness.":

I submit:

Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. "Subjective Well-Being and Income: Is There Any Evidence of Satiation?" American Economic Review 103.3 (2013): 598-604. Web.


Many scholars have argued that once “basic needs” have been met, higher income is no longer associated with higher in subjective well-being. We assess the validity of this claim in comparisons of both rich and poor countries, and also of rich and poor people within a country. Analyzing multiple datasets, multiple definitions of “basic needs” and multiple questions about well-being, we find no support for this claim. The relationship between well-being and income is roughly linear-log and does not diminish as incomes rise. If there is a satiation point, we are yet to reach it.
Summary of findings:
To preview, we find no evidence of a satiation point. The income–well-being link that one finds when examining only the poor, is similar to that found when examining only the rich. We show that this finding is robust across a variety of datasets, for various measures of subjective well-being, at various thresholds, and that it holds in roughly equal measure when making cross-national comparisons between rich and poor countries as when making comparisons between rich and poor people within a country.

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In contrast...

Diener, Ed, and Biswas-Diener, Robert. "Will Money Increase Subjective Well-Being?" Social Indicators Research 57.2 (2002): 119-169. Web.

Abstract (reformatted for ease of reading)
Four replicable findings have emerged regarding the relation between income and subjective well-being (SWB):
  1. There are large correlations between the wealth of nations and the mean reports of SWB in them,
  2. There are mostly small correlations between income and SWB within nations, although these correlations appear to be larger in poor nations, and the risk of unhappiness is much higher for poor people,
  3. Economic growth in the last decades in most economically developed societies has been accompanied by little rise in SWB, and increases in individual income lead to variable outcomes, and
  4. People who prize material goals more than other values tend to be substantially less happy, unless they are rich.
Thus, more money may enhance SWB when it means avoiding poverty and living in a developed nation, but income appears to increase SWB little over the long-term when more of it is gained by well-off individuals whose material desires rise with their incomes. Several major theories are compatible with most existing findings:
  • The idea that income enhances SWB only insofar as it helps people meet their basic needs, and
  • The idea that the relation between income and SWB depends on the amount of material desires that people's income allows them to fulfil[].
We argue that the first explanation is a special case of the second one. A third explanation is relatively unresearched, the idea that societal norms for production and consumption are essential to understanding the SWB-income interface. In addition, it appears high SWB might increase people's chances for high income. We review the open issues relating income to SWB, and describe the research methods needed to provide improved data that will better illuminate the psychological processes relating money to SWB.

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  • Wirtz, D., C. Scollon, J. Kruger and E. Diener: 2001, Selecting a spring break: On-line versus recalled mood of the last one. Manuscript submitted for publication, University of Illinois.
  • World Value Survey Group: 1994, World Values Survey, 1981–1984 and 1990–1993 (Institute for Social Research, ICPSR, Ann Arbor, MI).

In spite of the substance in my answer (above), I maintain that the premise and question are poorly framed. Not unlike Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), I firmly believe that a post-modernist philosophical approach is being employed by this line of research that flirts dangerously close to pseudo-science. While there is little doubting the potential for the sensational, I stand with those who venture that applying immature definitions, as well as, recursive and undeclared assumptions create an illusion of scientific maturity that simply does not exist. Further, the current approach (unintentionally?) advocates unsound scientific short-cuts that, at best, run the risk of gross misinterpretation by lay persons -- while at worst, subject the entire body of knowledge to endless premise challenges. There is very little in this thread of research that is meaningful or actionable outside a very narrow community -- and still, for them, most appropriately, only to conclude that more focus is needed. It can, after all, be considered an advance to get off the blank page and begin scratching away at the "we don't know what we don't know" knowledge boundary. I suppose through Dr. Steven Wright (Visiting scientist, Brain and Language Lab, Georgetown University), I can be more cogent (and diplomatic) on this point.

According to Dr. Steve Wright, it is important for researchers to level set their understanding of the meaning happiness before measuring happiness or interpreting statistics for actionable conclusions. He suggests that, currently, two high-level meanings of happiness have emerged. One is happiness as a transitory emotion, a feeling. He further suggests, there are researchers who seem to think this is all there is, and would define a happy life as nothing more than a tally of emotionally “up” or "down" snapshots. While the completely, separate and distinct alternative meaning has a stronger cognitive component (bias), involving memory and judgment (which introduces entirely different, if not equally subjective challenges to scientific measurement and replicability. Finally, Dr. Wright also suggests the integrity of subjects answers can (should?) be viewed through a lens of disbelief -- that is, 'is a respondent's answer true and accurate or skewed selectively and/or unintentionally?

Researchers have not yet come to an agreement about this dichotomy. They’re still quite a ways from being able to shed much light on most of the big questions. What’s really known scientifically advances slowly.

Disclaimer: With the exception of the final blockquote, I am not purporting to channel Dr. Wright. My representation of him is applied interpretation.

share|improve this answer
Since you do not mention all of the references listed, could you please take out the ones not pointed to in this post, and remove the others? The full reference list is still available in your link either way. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 9 at 10:59
You have put remarkable effort into highlighting the vagueness of my question. Given the conflicting references you provided on even some of the base assumptions the question is built on, i think this serves as a proper answer, in the sense that it shows the current knowledge is not even ready yet to tackle some more fundamental questions. I would suggest leaving the references, a lot of them look very relevant and useful for anyone willing to dig deeper. thx! –  Wouter Mar 9 at 11:04
@Wouter, they are simply the references listed in the publication he links to. No point in repeating 124 references out of context. Without specifying why references are relevant, there is no point in listing them in the first place. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 9 at 11:45
Ah, in that case i know where to find them later if i want to have a look :) But then they don't really have to be listed here indeed. –  Wouter Mar 9 at 12:19

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