How to buy happiness

I still miss David Foster Wallace. I wish he were still around to say the sorts of things he said in his commencement address at Kenyon College. Fortunately, some researchers are finding evidence to support Wallace’s claims about the dangers of self-centeredness. This is of particular interest to me just now because both of my sons are overawed by the richest men in the world. Wealth, they seem to think, makes people important, worthy of our interest, and–most of all–happy. The evidence, described in an article in The Week (excerpted from an article by Michael Lewis published in The New Republic), suggests otherwise.

Not only does more money fail to increase your happiness, it seems to infect your soul. The studies found a correlation between selfish acts and even dishonesty (in the service of gain) and wealth. My 11-year-old son, who dreams of being a world-class soccer player (and compensated accordingly), listened as I read the first several paragraphs of the article, and that’s saying something. He listened, because the article begins with a wonderful description of a tennis camp (really, you should read this article–it’s good, and it won’t take long) in which the lines were drawn not between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ but between the ‘givers’ and the ‘takers’.

You won’t be surprised to learn that in terms of happiness, the ‘givers’ are the ‘haves’ and the ‘takers’ are the ‘have-nots’–regardless of their net worth (and generalization extends only to those for whom net worth is an applicable category). In fact–and this is the lesson I took away from the article–the only way some extra money can make you happy is if you spend it on someone else. And there are plenty of opportunities to do that these days, so many opportunities that the whole word could become a happier place if we all were to treat our neighbors to a meal, or a tent, or whatever they need most urgently.

So, in a sense, money can buy happiness. You just can’t buy it for yourself.

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