The Pursuit of Happiness

by Roger Alford

Happy Fourth of July! There are many things one can be grateful for on Independence Day. One reason to be particularly thankful to live in this country is our nation’s recognition of the pursuit of happiness. Happiness includes many things, but the right to enjoy the fruits of our labors is a key ingredient.

I therefore found this website of the Global Rich List offers a useful perspective of just how thankful we should be as Americans. If you are an average American and earn the median of $48,201 a year, then you’re among the top 60 million richest people in the world, or in the global top 1%. If you are fortunate enough to make $200,000 then you are one of the 750,000 richest people in the world, or in the top 0.01%.

Measured from a global perspective, you are exceedingly fortunate and blessed, whether your earnings equal that of an average American or, like many readers of this blog, much more than that.

8 Responses

  1. As I heard someone one say on the radio this morning, Americans tend to believe they have a “right” or are “entitled” to happiness, rather than a right to the conditions that permit its pursuit.

    And then we might reflect on what happiness means, i.e., what is true happiness. I suspect it is something along the lines of what the Greeks understood by eudaimonia, which is sometimes translated as “happiness,” although the term “flourishing” gets closer to its meaning. In any case, it directs us to inquiries into “the good,” into what it means to be drawn to that which is intrinsically good or excellent in human life, into what it means to “live well,” into the meaning of a virtuous life (some recent work by Richard Kraut and Robert Merrihew Adams can aid our inquiries here).

    Next, we might think a bit about the remuneration of labor in capitalist societies and exactly how work is rewarded, about the division and “alienation” of labor, about commodity fetishism, about conspicuous consumption, about the (undemocratic) power of corporations, and about the deleterious effects of inequality, both domestically and globally (Cf., for example, David B. Grusky and Ravi Kanbur, eds., Poverty and Inequality, 2006, Harold R. Kerbo, Global Inequality and the Modern World System, 2006, and Christian Barry and Thomas W. Pogge, eds., Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice, 2005).

    And then we might reflect on the relation between income and “happiness,” including the fact that “the pleasures of consumption tend to become jaded over time, while the withdrawal symptoms become increasingly more severe. The consumption activity remains attractive not because it provides pleasure, but because it offers release from the withdrawal symptoms. Conversely, the attractions of self-realisation increase over time, as the start-up costs diminish and the gratification from achievement becomes more profound. There are economies of scale in in self-realisation, whereas consumption has the converse property” (See Jon Elster’s essay, ‘Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,’ in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism, 1989; the work of the economist Juliet Schor; Nicholas Xenos’ Scarcity and Modernity, 1989; Robert E. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, 2000; and Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, eds., The Quality of Life, 1993).

    Americans may be “exceedingly fortunate” in one sense of that phrase, although I would not infer or confer any blessings as a result of this extravagant affluence.

    I too will celebrate the Fourth of July, but the reasons for that celebration are rather different than those suggested or implied in this post.

  2. Patrick,

    I agree that happiness is based on much more than one’s standard of living. But it is wrong to assume that economic success at some level is not a fundamental ingredient of happiness. Maslow’s heirarchy of needs lists physiological needs as foundational and then security needs, including financial security, as the next most important needs. We don’t reach the other ingredients of happiness you are referring to until these deficiency needs are met. The average American can focus on the pursuit of happiness because our basic physiological and financial security needs are met.

    Roger Alford

  3. Roger,

    I suppose a lot hinges on what one means by “success.” Unfortunately, given the nature of our economic system and a society hypnotized by conspicuous consumption, what counts for success is ever-changing, and what were once “wants,” luxuries even, are now understood as basic necessities. I don’t think one has to experience the excesses of affluence or be sated with material goods before one realizes that one cannot purchase happiness. In any case, I suspect there’s plenty of evidence that most Americans confuse happiness with something on the order of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” I would not argue with the proposition that the satisfaction of basic needs is conducive to the pursuit of happiness (as a necessary but not sufficient condition), but it does seem that many if not most Americans have no conception whatsoever of what truly constitutes the meeting of basic needs (let alone ‘financial security’) nor what makes for happiness. In short, I have no quibble in the main with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs schema. The average American pursues happiness at the Mall, the racetrack, the bar, Vegas casinos, Wall Street, and Disneyland; confuses it with high-tech toys and the signs and symbols of affluence, seeks it in the pursuit of power, fame and fortune, in the evanescent pleasures of the hedonist, in fantasies of vicarious living….

  4. Damn. I’m not even in the top sixty million?

  5. Those numbers seem off. There are only 750,000 people in the world that make more than 200k a year? I don’t believe that.

    Heck, alone there must be at least a hundred thousand attorneys in the US that make more than 200k.

  6. I hate to quibble with this post. The point is obviously correct. Americans (and really everyone in the developed world) are incredibly well off compared to general global standards.

    That said, the previous comment is correct – these stats can’t be right. If $48k is the median income in the US, that means half of those in the country make that or more. That would be 150+ million people, and they can’t all be in the top 60 million. Of course, maybe kids should be excluded because they aren’t in the income sample, but then you should exclude kids from total population as well. My guess is that the discrepancy comes from the fact that $48k is the median household income, not individual income, and the other site uses individual incomes. If households are always two adults (not really true) that would make median individual wealth $24k (assuming both spouses get equal amounts), and such an individual would just miss the top 10% worldwide. The point still holds, though maybe not with quite the same degree of absurdity.

    (Also, if those lawyers’ spouses aren’t making that much, the household income would be under $400k, and then each person, if this site is averaging, will be listed with income under $200k.)

  7. Thoughtcounts A:

    I think you have a point that the numbers seem a little off. Here is the link from the Global Rich List that describes their methodology.

    Roger Alford

  8. If it makes you feel any better, compared to every human that has ever lived, we’re probably an even smaller percentage of the wonderfully wealthy.

    Human existence was a miserable and squalid affair for thousands of years. Just being alive at this period in civilization is pretty grand.

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