Sunday, May 15, 2005

Money Can't Buy Happiness . . . Just Ask a Billionaire

It's an American pathology to believe that wealth is the road to happiness. This illusory equation leads people to buy lottery tickets, to gamble in Vegas with the mortgage money, and to put their life savings into too-good-to-be-true investment scams. Thus, on the surface it was a good idea for Rita Braver and CBS Sunday Morning to create a news segment showing that happiness and money don't always--or even usually--go together.

So Rita rustled up an interview with Gregg Easterbrook, a right-of-center journalist and pundit who has written a forthcoming book, The Price of Paradox, which shows via surveys etc. that our subjective sense of happiness hasn't increased even as our national income has grown.

And of course to illustrate the theme, Rita profiles three families. But what families!

(1) A couple where the husband is a serial entrepreneur who recently sold his third Silicon Valley company for five billion dollars. With the proceeds, the couple has started a foundation to donate much of the wealth to worthy causes. Thus, they are happy (per Rita Braver) because they are giving away their money. Of course, they retain enough to support an opulent lifestyle--mansion, art collection, electronic gadgetry up the wazoo, etc.

(2) Another couple who quit their professional careers to launch a winery. (Shots of them in their vast glossy new winemaking establishment surrounded by acres of lush vineyards etc.) Rita says they are happy (despite the modest $30,000 profit turned by the winery last year) because they are following their dream. No indication as to the salaries the couple is drawing from their winery, nor any information as to how they could afford to build the company in the first place. We can assume however that they are not living out of the back seat of their car.

(3) A third couple who won millions in the lottery. They seem to have used the money judiciously, buying a new house and some antique cars but otherwise retaining their accustomed middle-class lifestyle--the same friends, family get-togethers, and so on. They are happy, Rita says, because wealth hasn't gone to their head. The wife comments, "Our dream has come true," and adds, with a laugh, that she still buys lottery tickets, because she believes "I will win again."

So let's recap. Money can't buy happiness . . . and the evidence is (1) a happy billionaire, (2) a happy couple who own their own winery, and (3) a happy lottery winner.

Somehow I don't think this story is going to do much to discourage people from equating money and happiness, do you? In fact, for the average working-class or middle-class person, the message conveyed by this story is obvious: Since there's no way I'm going to found a high-tech company in Silicon Valley or build a winery in Washington State, the smart thing for me to do is to buy more lottery tickets. Thanks for the tip, CBS News!

It would be easy to create a story that would actually illustrate and explore the truth that money and happiness don't necessarily go together. You'd profile several people who make $20,000 to $40,000 a year but feel contented, productive, and satisfied . . . people with rewarding work, families, and spiritual lives--for example, a schoolteacher, a nurse, an artist or musician, a craftsperson, a member of the clergy, and a lawyer or doctor devoted to helping the poor.

There are such people, of course, and telling their stories would be newsworthy because counter-intuitive (man bites dog and all that). You might think it would be interesting for CBS News to present a view of life that differs from the purely materialistic one assumed by 98% of the MSM, from American Idol and The Apprentice to Vogue, New York, and Vanity Fair. But I guess not.
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