Consumption and happiness

54-happinessThe search for happiness really is as old as our species and, quite understandably, has a major influence on our actions. It therefore sounds logical that, if we want more control over our brains, we should start by understanding what makes us happy.

In this first happiness post, we will look at one possible road to happiness: increased consumption. This topic is covered first simply because the actions of the world appear to suggest that increased consumption is the primary goal of human existence.

People will do extraordinary things for money and the things money can buy. Actually, our entire way of life (our fundamentally flawed system of perpetual exponential economic expansion) is based on the assumption that increased consumption will improve the human condition. This is what economic growth is. Increased GDP = increased consumption.

Naturally, lots of research has been done on the connection between money and happiness. The following main findings have been reported:

  • People in richer nations are happier than people in poorer nations
  • Increases in national wealth within developed nations have not, over recent decades, been associated with increases in happiness
  • Within-nation differences in wealth show small positive correlations with happiness
  • Increases in personal wealth do not typically result in increased happiness
  • People who strongly desire wealth and money are more unhappy than those who do not

So, can money buy happiness? From the data, the answer is yes … up to a point – a point that most developed world citizens have long since crossed.

Data collected by the good people who put together the Happy Planet Index shows this trend quite clearly. Initial increases in GDP per capita (personal consumption) cause strong increases in happiness, but further increases have progressively smaller influences.

Happiness vs wealth

When plotting the number of happy life years (happiness multiplied by life expectancy) achieved by the average person against the ecological damages caused in the process, a very similar pattern emerges. It is therefore clear that increasing ecological footprints bring longer and happier lives only up to a point.

Happy life years vs ecological footprint

In addition, measurements of average happiness over time also confirm that gradual increases in material consumption over time bring little or no happiness. This trend for the USA has featured quite regularly on this blog.


But still, income remains a small, albeit significant, factor in determining happiness within nations, implying that it is not so much the absolute consumption that influences happiness, but more the relative consumption. Our very sad “keeping up with the Joneses” dynamic therefore appears to decrease the happiness of those who perceive themselves to have inferior material possessions relative to their peers.

Keeping up with the Joneses

But the primary point that should be taken away from these data is that, in developed nations, consumption only has a very minor influence on happiness. Inflicting further damages on our planet through even more unsustainable consumption will not bring any more happy life years. As we will discuss in the next post, happiness can be gained much more easily in much more ecologically intelligent ways.  

Filed under: Mental control – Happiness

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