Can’t Buy Me Contentment

More money can’t buy more happiness, at least for those above the poverty line, writes Robert E. Lane in his new book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (Yale University, 2000). The author, a political scientist recently retired from Yale, puzzles over the long-term rise of discontent and even clinical depression in prosperous liberal democracies. His explanation: People in such countries have become less resilient in the face of everyday setbacks because they suffer “a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solidarity in family life.” Lane talked with D.W. Miller of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What has caused loss of companionship?

We’re so busy striving for income that there isn’t time for friendship. You can track visiting patterns for families over the past 25 years: Visiting has declined dramatically in the United States. The divorce rate also goes up when people become richer, and partly it’s because their very effort to become richer is a strain on the family. In general, materialists are unhappy people.

If earning and consuming are less satisfying than finding companionship, why do we engage in them so eagerly?

We’re not very good judges of what makes us happy. We live in a materialist culture that cues people to what they ought to be working for. If it were a religious culture, it would be piety; if it were a warrior culture, it would be honor and bravery. But in a materialist culture, it’s money.

Can government promote well-being–by redistributing income, say, or imposing a 35-hour workweek?

On the 35-hour workweek, I doubt it. Intrinsic enjoyment of one’s work has almost as close a relationship to happiness as does friendship. The way to go on the work front is to revise incentives and the culture to make jobs intrinsically satisfying. There is some evidence that social-democratic countries are happier than true capitalist countries, that the safety-net provisions such as health care and child care and, of course, pensions do contribute something to average happiness in those societies.

Do you sense a craving in advanced democracies for the sort of changes you want?

Yes, there’s a craving, but they don’t know the target of their craving. There’s an unsettled feeling, a malaise, to use Jimmy Carter’s word: Life is not giving me what I want. But they don’t know, because leaders of society–and I don’t just mean politicians, but universities and journalists too–have not helped them to see where the next phase of their felicity lies.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education. (June 9, 2000). Subscriptions: $75/yr. (49 issues) from Box 1955, Marion, OH 43305. Copyright 2000, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be posted, published or distributed with permission from The Chronicle.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.