This American Life recently featured an astonishing series of recordings from Hard Times, the radio series created by Studs Terkel. It featured a variety of American voices, from the short order cook in Arkansas to the migrant worker in Texas to the wealthy elite of Manhattan, talking about what it was like to live through the Great Depression. The sheer suffering was astonishing. People talked about hunger and living off oily brown water and stale bread. They described what it was like to have no heat in winter and spend years in the unemployment line. The rich guy was hilariously greedy.
But the most remarkable thing about the oral histories is that, despite the suffering and material deprivation, people didn’t describe the Great depression in depressed terms. In fact, nearly every person described the experience as partly positive, a tough time that the entire country was forced to suffer through together. Their memories seem irrevocably tinged by that sense of community.
So keep this in mind as you’re watching you stock portfolio plummet: happiness isn’t simply a factor of money. (Sure, money makes things easier, and the Easterlin paradox is now being questioned, but the Beatles were right.)
For instance, since 1950, the number of Americans describing themselves as very happy has declined from 7.5 percent to 6 percent. Even more interesting is fact that, as many countries become more prosperous, depression becomes significantly more common. Other studies have found that rates of depression and anxiety are twice as high among upper-class, suburban teens compared to the national norm. Obviously, differing rates of diagnoses play a big part in these statistics, but I’m not sure they explain everything.
The lesson is that affluence isn’t an unqualified good. I’m personally drawn to the work of people like Robert Frank, who argue that part of the problem is conspicuous consumption. When someone wears a Rolex watch, they don’t make themselves happy – they habituate very quickly to the luxury good – but they do manage to raise the material expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. (Such luxury items are known as “positional goods,” since part of their appeal is that they signal your social position.) Multiply this same psychological phenomenon across a full range of consumer products–from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes–and you can begin to see the “hedonic treadmill” that afflicts people in developed countries. Not only do their reward neurons automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expensive expectations. Of course, not everybody can afford a Rolex or a Lexus, which means that we are constantly being disappointed.
While a depression or steep recession is a terrible thing, it does lead to a few less Rolexes. And if the Terkel interviews are any indication, it was that diminished sense of disparity – the fact that everyone was going without – that made the time bearable. This recent Kahneman study in Science made a similar point:
The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient.