MIT’s Daedalus has an insightful article, “How Not to Buy Happiness,” that addresses the question of why societies whose prosperity levels grow don’t see corresponding increases in happiness. It boils down to keeping up with the Joneses: people tend to overallocate their newfound resources on conspicuous items that everyone else is buying, but that don’t cause permanent changes in happiness. But the good news is that it is possible to change the situation.
The article’s main example is a common real-world one: making the choice between size of living space and length of commute. People tend to favor the former, even though there is ample evidence to suggest that the latter is actually more likely to lead to greater well-being in the form of lower risk of death, lower physical indicators of stress level, and greater amounts of leisure time.
I’ve certainly noticed that to be true for me: as I’ve moved into bigger living spaces over the course of my adult life, they always seem to not quite have enough room for all my stuff and for everything I want to do at home. I always wish I had just a bit more space; I think my average level of pleasure with the amount of space in my home has stayed about the same over time. But commuting is a real pain in the butt and I’m very thankful that I’m able to work from home several days a week right now. Even if it meant a 50% earnings increase, I wouldn’t take a job that required me to spend hours a week driving to and from the office.
As ever, it pays to think honestly about what really makes you happy and whether you’re making the right choices to get there.