So many of us strive so hard for material success that you might think there was a clear relationship between wealth and happiness. The media and our governments encourage us to believe this, since they need us to keep earning and spending to boost economic growth. From school onwards, we’re taught that long term well-being stems from achievement and economic prosperity – from ‘getting on’ or ‘making it’, accumulating more and more wealth, achievement and success.
Consequently, it comes as a shock for many people to learn that there is no straightforward relationship between wealth and well-being. Once our basic material needs are satisfied (i.e. once we’re assured of regular food and adequate shelter and a basic degree of financial security), wealth only has a negligible effect on well-being.
For example, studies have shown that, in general, lottery winners do not become significantly happier than they were before, and that even extremely rich people – such as billionaires – are not significantly happier than others.
Studies have shown that American and British people are less contented now than they were 50 years ago, although their material wealth is much higher. On an international level, there does appear to some correlation between wealth and well-being, partly because there are many countries in the world where people’s basic material needs are not satisfied. But this correlation is not a straightforward one, since wealthier countries tend to be more politically stable, more peaceful and democratic, with less oppression and more freedom – all of which are themselves important factors in well-being.