Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Happiness vs Stuff

Today’s post is about happiness.  It was stimulated by an excellent piece of personal history in the New York Times by a guy who had hit it big as an entrepreneur, embarked on a life of conspicuous consumption and then realized he was a prisoner of all of his stuff.  He subsequently downsized in a radical way and finds his less cluttered life much less stressful and much more rewarding.   This whole topic of how to measure happiness and how it relates to material wealth has been the subject of discussion in places as diverse as the happily capitalist Forbes Magazine and also the liberal group Oxfam.


Income vs. Satisfaction

Obviously individual stories vary, but the graph below is from the Gallup Organization and plots income per person vs. life satisfaction.   The graph tells two stories.  The first is that people in poor countries generally rate their lives as less satisfying than people in rich countries.  The second story is that after per person income reaches 10-15,000$ per year money (and by extension accumulation of material goods) has less impact on happiness.



 Income vs. Life Expectancy

The money vs. happiness graph above is almost identical to the money vs. life expectancy graph below which was generated from data obtained from the World Bank and CIA.  Again, life expectancy goes up as per person income rises but things level off around 10-15,000$ per year.



A Few Reflections

All of this data and the story about the entrepreneur who simplified things reinforce the old saying that “money does not buy happiness”.   The flip side is that accumulating “stuff” can buy time consuming and stressful obligations.  When that happens it is pretty easy to start chasing your tail keeping up with what you have and then needing even more income to maintain it.   In fact:


“…..materialists are more likely to believe that acquisition will change the kind of person they are, improve their relationships with others, enable them to have more pleasure in their lives, and enhance the effectiveness with which they carry out daily tasks. They also experience more negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear, and envy.”


On a personal note, the low tech workouts I have been doing the last few months have reminded me how easy it was to get in shape before heart rate monitors, gyms, and high tech gear of various sorts.   I am also looking forward to the ice melting off the streets here in Minnesota.  As soon as the ice melts I will start riding my bike to work again and get a daily reminder of the freedom I experienced when I was 8 or 9 years old and got a new bike and was able to fully explore my neighborhood so many years ago.  Biking for transportation is a great way to exercise.  It is even a better way to be 10 years old forever.  So, enjoy all the stuff you are surrounded by but keep it in perspective by doing simple things that are their own reward.



2 Responses to “Happiness vs Stuff”

  1. March 14th, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Sheila Ray says:

    Awesome, Mike. Just, awesome…

  2. March 21st, 2013 at 5:32 am

    Health vs. Health Care Spending | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] few weeks ago I showed a couple of graphs on the relationships between income, happiness and life expectancy.   The graphs demonstrated what can be described as a diminishing returns relationship with more […]

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