Gold, Silver and Bronze- And Happiness

Like everyone, I was ecstatic when Sakshi got the bronze medal in wrestling, in the Rio Olympics. Her exuberant exultation showed that she was, too.

I watched Sindhu get her silver in badminton. She is the first Indian woman to get a silver in the Olympics, ever. What a marvellous achievement! It beats Sakshi’s bronze any day.

But that got me thinking. Who was happier- Sakshi or Sindhu? I suspected a general pattern. Google showed me that some had beaten me to it. Studies have been done. Bronze medallists are happier with their achievement than silver medallists. Puzzling- or is it?

.Abject poverty and continuous misery makes people unhappy. Happiness levels vary across communities and countries. As people are lifted out of poverty, countries like India and China has shown a rise in the subjective well-being of its citizens.

In the west, as also in upper middle class India, material prosperity and conveniences of daily life has improved remarkably, over the past half century. Has that made people happier?

We have data from only western countries. But they tell us something that we, as a developing nation should take note of. What do we want to develop into?

It seems that despite many fold increases in absolute income and purchasing power, most of the European countries and the US has not become happier in the recent period. In fact one survey shows that in America, half a century back, the average happiness score was 7.5. A recent estimate puts the value at 7.2. During this period, the average American has become healthier, richer and lives considerably longer. The actual prospect for pursuing leisure has increased. Technology, gadgets and the internet have provided unprecedented opportunities to entertain themselves and relieve boredom. Still the number of citizens suffering from Depression has gone up. More people attempt suicide. Crime rates are on the rise. Our well being is on a stagnant path.

In some countries, especially Scandinavian countries, happiness levels have risen slightly.

We certainly believe that a big increase in our earnings will make us happy on a long term basis. Prestige and status, we think, has the same effect. Almost all people interviewed across countries felt firmly that a million dollars or roubles or whatever will solve a lot of their problems and they will become permanently happier. But the truth is that it has only a temporary effect. Research among lottery winners has shown that.

Yet I am not going to tell you that money won’t buy you happiness. I am not feeding you the cliché that money doesn’t matter. Money does matter. Rich people are happier. Many studies have also shown that. The issue is complex and we see conflicting results. What is happening here?

Abject poverty and misery definitely makes folks unhappy. Rich countries are generally happier. India and China have become happier recently, on an average. But the correlation is not perfect, with income. Some poor African countries are among the unhappiest. But many of the former Soviet countries come at the bottom in the happiness scale, in spite of higher income.

But over the last fifty years, as we discussed earlier, purchasing power and real incomes have risen across the western world, with no increase in happiness.

The chief reason is that we become adapted to increase in the wages. We escalate our needs to keep up with the income. When the money pours in, we want a new house, the new car. We can afford that private school now. And within a year we are back to square one. We have scaled up our aspirations, our needs, and our expectations. We see the happiness treadmill in full form, when it comes to money. Yet the richest in any society is happier. There is conflicting research on money, status and happiness. Why?

It is because it is not our absolute earnings, status that matter, but our relative income, status, or whatever. We are always comparing ourselves to our peers, neighbours, relatives. People in our immediate community determine our standard. I am not comparing myself with Mukesh Ambani. But I am acutely aware of the income of my brother-in-law, who is a software engineer. I keenly watch the life style of the lawyer next door. I know that the businessman, who is my wife’s best friend’s husband, is sending both his kids to an expensive international school. But the fact that the washerwoman’s kids are going to the government school down the street doesn’t register in my brain.

As an entire community or country become richer, the society doesn’t become happier because the relative incomes stay the same.

Yet the richer you are, many people in your reference population, cannot afford your lifestyle. So your status is elevated slightly. So you are happier. If one is a rich man and all his neighbours, relatives and friends are middle class, he is satisfied. If he moves to a rich neighbourhood, all is lost. Then he and his family have to live up to them. Oh, what an effort!

Another feature of money is the difference in happiness that it can create depends on how much money you already have. If one is earning only 3000 rupees a month, you are really struggling. If he gets 3000 more a month, it makes a real difference. He is much happier. Another person earning 30000 per month wouldn’t become that happy if he gets an additional 3000. The man who gets 300000 a month will not even notice the difference. So, at lower levels of income money has more power to boost the well-being.

What one is used to getting is very important. If the amount falls from even a high value you get very frustrated. More than gain, humans just hate losing. That has been shown in surveys. So, if the flow of money becomes lower than a previous level it is big blow. You have become used to the high level that you are getting.

The whole thing is worsened by our constant comparison with others.

Sakshi could have been comparing herself to someone who didn’t get any medal, while Sindhu was, maybe, looking at the top winner and the gold that she didn’t get.

Read more- ‘Health and Happiness without Bullshit.’

Dr Jimmy

I am a Doctor, Writer and Science Communicator. I am a member of Info- Clinic, and have written a few books. This site features my blog posts and stories. Thank you for visiting. ഞാൻ എഴുതാൻ ഇഷ്ടമുള്ള ഉള്ള ഒരു ഡോക്ടർ ആണ് . നിങ്ങളുടെ താത്പര്യത്തിന് നന്ദി .