Money can’t buy you happy

my Trade Tripper column in the 5-6 February 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

In last week’s Republican primary debate, Marco Rubio made this interesting comment: “Why are we some of the most generous people in the world? Why do Americans contribute millions of dollars to charity? It is not because of the tax write off. It is because in this nation we are influenced by Judeo-Christian values that teach us to care for the less fortunate, to reach out to the needy, to love our neighbor.”

This very fundamental and should be obvious aspect of Senator Rubio’s statement, that the US was influenced by “Judeo-Christian” values, will be taken up in another article. Primarily because the Philippine constitutional system is quite similar to, and in fact was learned from, the US.

This column will take a break this week from constitutional or international trade issues, and take up instead more important matters: human happiness. And the effect wealth has on it. And no surprises: more money doesn’t make one truly happy.

The Philippines certainly has the lowest suicide rate in ASEAN but the number is unfortunately increasing.

In “Suicide in the Philippines: time trend analysis (1974-2005) and literature review” (Maria Theresa Redaniel, May Antonnette Lebanan-Dalida, and David Gunnella; 2011), the “incidence of suicide in males increased from 0.23 to 3.59 per 100,000 between 1984 and 2005. Similarly, rates rose from 0.12 to 1.09 per 100,000 in females.”

This must be read within the reality that the Filipino (according to the World Health Organization) is apparently the most depressed in Southeast Asia, with a reported 4.5 million Filipinos suffering from depression.

Contextually, this is interesting considering the improving economic situation (if you believe this government). And with social media, everybody can now be a celebrity in their own world, a wise political pundit, or an expert on gourmet restaurants.

And yet the sadness is there and one likely reason science tells us is self-indulgence.

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton (“Don’t Indulge. Be Happy”, July 2012, New York Times) point out that: “We usually think of having more money as allowing us to buy more and more of the stuff we like for ourselves, from bigger houses to fancier cars to better wine to more finely pixilated televisions. But these typical spending tendencies -- buying more, and buying for ourselves -- are ineffective at turning money into happiness. A decade of research has demonstrated that if you insist on spending money on yourself, you should shift from buying stuff (TVs and cars) to experiences (trips and special evenings out). Our own recent research shows that in addition to buying more experiences, you’re better served in many cases by simply buying less -- and buying for others.”

Admittedly, those who say poverty is not exactly the situation that can bring out happiness are right.

But as Dunn and Norton clarifies: “People with a comfortable living standard are happier than people living in poverty. The catch is that additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard.”

Just accept that the new glamorous job you have, the new shiny gadget, that impressive looking car, that smart looking crowd in that sophisticated cocktail party, will just depress you, leave you feeling empty, in the long run. Because eventually, after the novelty wears off, it will all be ordinary, leaving you with yourself to contend with.

Some people’s reaction to this is to escape from the sadness by plunging into new activities, which in reality merely creates a manic circle that cannot stave off the inevitable.

“The effects of changes in people’s circumstances wear off as they get used to them -- a phenomenon economists call ‘hedonic adaptation,’” so says The Economist (reporting on the effect of wealth on people’s happiness; “Keeping up with the Karumes”; October 2015). Essentially, “We are never satisfied, since we quickly become accustomed to our own achievements.”

Admittedly, that lack of satisfaction could also spur more economic activity and the generation of further wealth. But that is beside the point because what’s the use of all that wealth if sadness becomes your constant overbearing companion?

We should encourage a society that devalues self-indulgence and immediate gratification. We must teach other the importance of thinking for the long term, of charity to others, and the strength and will to do one’s duty.

And with a Philippine demographic where 70% of the population is below 30 years of age, we really have to exert effort to ensure that the youth grow up with proper values and forego materialism, particularly the “if it feels good, do it” mentality of the 1960’s.

One good suggestion was made by Quartz’s Jenny Anderson (“Parents: let your kids fail. You’ll be doing them a favor”; October 2015) and that is to push children to stick “with tasks, even when they got frustrated,” as doing so will make them learn “focus, study, organize, and otherwise run their own lives.”

Heraclitus puts it best: character is destiny.