As a postmodern academic in psychology, I have often heard the social hierarchy theory of happiness. It basically holds that the higher people rank on the socioeconomic empowerment scale, the happier or more satisfied with life they are likely to be. This theory, however, has proven false in many ways. Sociological theories frequently fail to translate into the psychological realities of life; it is one of the reasons that psychotherapists cannot make good use of some social theory in the consulting room. The majority of us suffer from some degree of the Midas Complex. We do so differently according to our socioeconomic sector (SES) rank. Social theory fails to understand, however, that differences in types of suffering generally do not equate into different degrees of suffering. The rich and poor both bleed red.
Extreme poverty, however, is a notable exception to my contention about the relatively equal distribution of suffering from the differing injuries of class. An increase of Money does in fact bring increased happiness for people struggling to meet the basics of life in the same manner that more food for a hungry person brings greater satisfaction. I know from firsthand experience that poverty itself is traumatic in unique ways. Poor people suffer more depression because life for the poor contains greater stressors, many of which are easily ameliorated if one has some Money. Middle-class people do not go to jail because they cannot pay a parking ticket and, until recently, do not usually lose their housing because they cannot make their rent or mortgage payment. Money can eliminate a great deal of suffering for the poor. There is a real limit, however, to the degree of happiness that Money can buy. As people rise on the economic scale beyond survival and basic comfort needs, the relationship between happiness and increased wealth quickly tapers off. Increasing amounts of food for a sated person is more likely to bring indigestion, high cholesterol, and undesired weight gain than increasing degrees of greater satisfaction.
A wealthy person who doubles his or her income is just somewhat wealthier, not inducted into an entirely different class experience. Nevertheless, the Midas Complex drives the fantasy of wealth acquisition as the road to happiness for many people. Erich Fromm states that we all aspire to a “pleasant sufficiency of means.” Beyond that, however, another operating system is at play.
How much more do we need? What amount of more will make us happier? At my seminars, most middle-class people guess that if they had double what they had now, they would at least feel secure, if not happier. Many who survived the Great Depression, however, feel as if they can never have enough because, at any moment, a mercurial twist of fate can take it away from them. Holocaust survivors and immigrants forced to relocate—anyone who has suffered sudden loss of wealth—can be haunted by the trauma. More than others, they may hope to achieve a solid enough economic foundation to withstand the shock of any change in the environment. The Great Recession shocked many Americans and others around the world too young to have experienced the Great Depression. People generally have a hard time adapting to uncertainty and often do not lose much happiness with economic loss, as long as there is a feeling of continuity and future opportunity in their lives.
As with the economic collapse of the early twentieth century, anxiety and depression rose markedly during the years of the Great Recession as the downturn seemed increasingly protracted and governmental interventions seemed to be of little help. The answer to the how much is enough question is very relative to the personal history and psychology of each individual and somewhat relative to the state of the economic environment at any time. The more uncertain life seems, the more some people seek Money as a source of comfort, a shield against uncertainty. When a person’s quality of life decreases in pursuit of more than what he or she needs for a comfortable life, however, then the Midas Complex is usually at play.
Researchers Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton of Princeton University found that while happy feelings rise with income, they plateau at around $75,000. They note, “Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases of income no longer improve people’s ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being: spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease and enjoying leisure. It is also likely that when income rises beyond this value the increased ability to purchase positive experiences is balanced, on average, by some negative effects” such as “factors in their temperament and their life circumstances.” A number of studies have recently developed similar happiness/income correlations.
Research like this points us toward one of the key insights about and potential cures for the Midas Complex. If, in fact, the degree of enjoyment in life is more dependent on social and psychological needs being met than how much Money one has beyond assuring modest comforts and survival, then the formula that more is always better is false. Moreover, it becomes easy to see that when one sacrifices relationships, health, and psychological well-being for the pursuit of more, then not only is the formula false it is toxic. One useful intervention for many of my high-SES clients who feel unhappy is to simply encourage them to spend more time tending to family, friends, health, and philanthropy. Acts such as these rarely fail to increase their happiness.
People with $8 million are not proportionately happier than those with $7 million. A million more does not really make a significant difference to happiness at that level. In fact, at these scales, more does not create any perceptible increase in overall happiness beyond the momentary pleasures of new acquisitions or increases in worth. As the German composer Richard Wagner once stated, “Joy is not in things, it is in us.”
Carol Graham is author of The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires. The title alone synthesizes the paradoxical content of this section. Some people understand that Money is not the main key to happiness. Nevertheless, this idea remains provocative to many others. When I received an iPhone from my wife for my birthday, I felt happy. Of course, she and I could only afford the phone and its service provider because we have good employment, which also makes me happy. Then I bought her one and was even happier because now we have FaceTime and can actually see each other when speaking on the phone from afar.
Few objects have ever brought me such happiness (and I own no Apple stock). A year later, however, I still like my phone. It is OK. But does it make me happy? Not really. That only happened for a few days around my birthday. I have become habituated to it. In psychology, we call this phenomenon, hedonic adaptation. We get used to new things and the happiness wears off.
But my wife still makes me happy, even more so than a year ago. We do not generally become as habituated to relationships as we do to things—certainly not healthy, dynamic, growing relationships. Many studies have shown that marriage and other intimate relationships tend to increase people’s overall happiness. The ones that don’t tend to wind up in my office. The amount of Money they make or have, however, only has a modest effect on their positive feelings from day to day. My psychotherapy practice reveals that many wealthy people are unhappy. Most, if not all, however, will say, “I am blessed, or “I am lucky,” or “I know I have advantages that most people do not share.” Nevertheless, they are truly unhappy, just guiltier about feeling that way, perhaps. Our culture has led them to believe that Money should be making them happier than they are. If you have Money and are not happy, it is easier to believe that there is something wrong with you than if you are poor and suffering from more obvious deprivations. The next blog discusses a counterintuitive difference in economic class and suicide as a somewhat sincere indicator of happiness.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis is a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of the recent book: The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.