Happiness is one of those grand ideas that we’re always reaching for but can’t seem to ever grasp. Everyone wants to be happy, although exact definitions of what “happiness” even means vary greatly from person to person. In the West, happiness is often equated with money, high-income, and financial stability. But, is all that true? Is money an absolute necessity on the path to contentment?
Researchers from Mcgill University and the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technologies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona investigated this eternal question with a novel approach.
Plenty of prior studies have investigated the relationship between happiness and money, but pretty much all of those earlier projects focused on “highly monetized” societies like the US or various European nations.
This time researchers surveyed the residents of two societies in which money plays a minimal role in everyday life: Bangladesh and the Solomon Islands. Not only did most people in these communities report high levels of happiness and contentment, but those living in specific areas with the lowest levels of monetization showed the highest happiness levels. Conversely, locals living in the most urbanized, money-centric regions of the two societies reported lower happiness levels.
As a reference point, study authors say people living in the least monetized areas of these two regions scored similarly on happiness rankings to people living in Scandinavian countries like Sweden or Denmark. Such European nations routinely top the lists of “happiest places in the world to live.”
What does all this tell us? Clearly, money is not necessary for happiness. However, stability is. In the West, money essentially equals stability. An American, German, or Italian isn’t going to be able to rest their head on the pillow each night and feel safe and secure in knowing they can provide for themselves and their loved ones without money. In these studied regions, however, money isn’t needed to lead a secure life – so residents don’t need money to be happy.
“Our study hints at possible ways of achieving happiness that are unrelated to high incomes and material wealth,” says senior study author Eric Galbraith, a professor in McGill’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, in a release. “This is important, because if we replicate these results elsewhere and can pinpoint the factors that contribute to subjective well-being, it may help us circumvent some of the environmental costs associated with achieving social well-being in the least developed nations.”
It’s also interesting that locals living in more urban areas of both Bangladesh and the Solomon Islands report less happiness. This suggests that as money becomes more important in a society, overall happiness in the community actually plummets.
“In less monetized sites, we found that people reported a greater proportion of time spent with family and contact with nature as being responsible for making them happy,” explains lead study author Sara Miñarro, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at ICTA-UAB. “But with increasing monetization, we found that the social and economic factors commonly recognized in industrialized countries played a bigger role. Overall, our findings suggest that monetization, especially in its early stages, may actually be detrimental to happiness.”
The research team went to great lengths to collect this data. In both Bangladesh and the Solomon Islands study authors spent months at a time getting to know and surveying locals. Via both in-person and over-the-phone interviews, researchers were mainly focused on getting an idea of locals’ definitions of happiness, as well as their daily moods, habits, lifestyles, and info regarding their income (if any).
Across both countries, a total of 678 people were surveyed, with the average age being 37 years old. It’s important to note that the vast majority of those interviewed were male (85%), but that was due to cultural challenges in Bangladesh. Cultural norms in Bangladesh society made it difficult for researchers to interview local women. But, for what it’s worth, responses among both males and females living on the Solomon Islands were very similar for the most part.
As far as what these findings mean for those of us living in the West, perhaps it’s a good idea to remember money is a means to an end – not the ultimate goal. Endless zeroes in a bank account are great, but the stability and peace of mind that those dollars represent are what will foster happiness, not the thrill of having more money than your neighbors or friends.
“This work adds to a growing realization that important supports for happiness are not in principle related to economic output,” concludes Chris Barrington-Leigh, a professor in McGill’s Bieler School of the Environment. “When people are comfortable, safe, and free to enjoy life within a strong community, they are happy – regardless of whether or not they are making any money.”
The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.