BOSTON — Those who say that money can't buy happiness don't know where to shop.
Happiness is the sublime moment when you get out of your corsets at night.
- Joyce Grenfell, actress
How many of you were told by your mother that money can't buy happiness?
Nonetheless, as adults, many are driven to seek more income and wealth. People do all sorts of things to rake in some extra dough.
Yet the experts tend to side with mom. There is only "a small positive correlation" between money and happiness, says economist Andrew Oswald. "It is not as large as people think." The wealthy are only a little happier than others.
In fact, the elements that seem to generate happiness most consistently are religion and marriage.
A study of Illinois lottery winners found that a year after their bonanza, they were no happier, on average, than most people, notes Professor Oswald of Warwick University, near Coventry in Britain.
Further, at least for industrial nations, "economic progress buys only a small amount of extra happiness."
Advertisers, journalists, politicians, and others tell us constantly that better economic performance means more happiness for a nation.
"We feel we would be more cheery if our boss raised our pay, and assume that countries must be roughly the same," writes Oswald in the Economic Journal.
But the evidence, he finds, is minimal.
"The relevance of economic performance,' he notes, "is that it may be a means to an end.
"That end is not the consumption of beefburgers, nor the accumulation of television sets ... but rather the enrichment of mankind's feelings of well being. Economic things matter only in so far as they make people happier."
Of course, for poor countries or people, greater income does produce significant and lasting gains in well-being.
But in Western industrial nations, prosperity has been rising for a long time without a related increase in happiness.
Britain, for example, is twice as rich as in 1960 and three times richer than after World War II. American living standards have also risen enormously.
In surveys over the years, though, when Americans are asked about happiness levels - very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy - they don't show much change. Fewer said they were not too happy in 1990 than in 1972, and more said they are pretty happy. But the very happy group has shifted little.
"It seems extra income is not contributing dramatically to the quality of people's lives," notes Oswald.
Similarly, reported levels of "satisfaction with life" in Western Europe are only slightly higher than they were 20 years ago.
Some countries (Belgium and Ireland) show a drop.
Despite higher incomes, suicide rates among men in most Western nations have risen, especially among the richer nations. Such rates are highest among the unemployed and those with marital problems.
"Joblessness is a major source of distress," says Oswald. It is not so much the loss of income as the loss of self-esteem.
Job satisfaction in the United States and Britain has not increased in the past quarter century, despite higher pay.
So what does promote happiness?
Church attendance, for one. Religion may give people a longer perspective, says Oswald.
Another favorable factor is marriage. Married men commit suicide only one-third as often as other men. Those divorced tend to be less happy.
More important, Oswald and others find, is employment. Human happiness is vulnerable to joblessness.
Considering that, "economic growth should not be a government's primary concern," maintains Oswald.
So why do people strive so hard to make more of it?
Oswald speculates that it may be a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. "What matters to someone who lives in a rich country is his or her relative income."