Three in four entering collegians today deem it "very important" or "essential" that they become "very well-off financially." Most adults believe "more money" would boost their quality of life. And today's "luxury fever" suggests that affluent Americans and Europeans are putting their money where their hearts are. "Whoever said money can't buy happiness isn't spending it right," proclaimed a Lexus ad. But the facts of life have revealed otherwise.
Although poverty and powerlessness often bode ill for body and spirit, wealth fails to elevate well-being. Surveys reveal that even lottery winners and the super rich soon adapt to their affluence. Moreover, those who strive most for wealth tend, ironically, to live with lower well-being than those focused on intimacy and communal bonds. And consider post-1960 American history: Average real income has doubled, so we own twice the cars per person, eat out two and a half times as often, and live and work in air conditioned spaces. Yet, paradoxically, we are a bit less likely to say we're "very happy." We are more often seriously depressed. And we are just now, thankfully, beginning to pull out of a serious social recession that was marked by doubled divorce, tripled teen suicide, quadrupled juvenile violence, quintupled prison population, and a sextupled proportion of babies born to unmarried parents. The bottom line: Economic growth has not improved psychological morale or communal health.
DAVID G. MYERS is a social psychologist at Hope College (Michigan) and author, most recently, of The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty and of A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss.