A Happiness Expert's "Gleaming Home:" Is Joy Easier When You're Rich?

Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project to become happier by "to appreciat[ing] more what I already have." But is this easier when you already have a lot?

Jan Hoffman's recent Times profile of Rubin makes repeated mention of her extremely posh life. "Her gleaming home" is a triplex "in a neo-Georgian building on the Upper East Side." Hoffman also writes,

On a tour of her museum-immaculate home, Ms. Rubin, a slender strawberry blonde whose cheerfulness seems both hard-wired and hard-earned, comes across as a wonky Martha Stewart. "I get such a buzz out of cleaning closets," she said, pointing out the pretty, practical glass jars that hold her daughters' small toys, a Container Store contraption that deftly organizes earrings, even a few shelves that remain proudly, temptingly empty. The extensive library is organized by genre, by subcategories of special topics, and alphabetized by author throughout.

And: "In the book, Ms. Rubin acknowledges that her family has plenty of money to do what it wants. But happiness, she writes, comes from how people choose to spend their money." Which presupposes that people have such choices. Many happiness researchers acknowledge that not having enough money to cover basic needs is a major source of unhappiness — but this notion has also inspired something of a backlash. Ariel Gore, author of Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, has said that "The psychology and study of happiness can't focus on privileged people," and some psychologists and economists say that above a certain point, money doesn't make people much happier (though that point, where basic needs are covered, may be key). Meanwhile, on the Times Freakonomics blog, Daniel Hamermesh says that as we make more money, "we demand more diversity in what we consume and what we do." And Barry Schwarz, author of The Paradox of Choice, suggested that "more diversity" of products may ultimately "tyrannize" the consumer.

However, critics say Schwarz may have overstated the ill effects of too much choice. And the fact remains that money is good for more than buying different wines (Hamermesh's example). While Casey Johnson's life and death are a reminder that being rich doesn't make everyone happy, it's still true that money can help people escape from some of life's most depressing situations: a soul-sucking job, a crappy apartment, a bad marriage, even depression itself, provided the patient responds to (often pricey) therapy and medication. Money enables big choices as well as small ones, and while it can't heal all wounds — Rubin mentions that her well-to-do husband suffers from hepatitis C — it can help people change bad situations rather than simply enduring them. Betsey "Hippest-Economist-Ever" Stevenson said in a recent interview,

If we look at the relationship between happiness and income, we see a very clear relationship, where wealthier people are the happiest people in society and happiness rises quite steadily with income. Beyond that, we usually find that those living in rich countries are much happier than those living in poor countries. So if you take a zero-to-ten life-satisfaction scale, people in the poorest countries tend to place themselves somewhere around three. Mid-range countries fall somewhere between five and six. And then in developed countries, people end up somewhere between seven and eight.

None of this is to say that studying — or improving — the happiness of the already comfortable is pointless. If it's true that, as Drake Bennett of the Boston Globe wrote last year, people are happier when they spend their money on experiences rather than goods, then perhaps a happier privileged class would also be one that consumes less and produces less waste — and contributes less to a damaging culture in which status equals stuff. At the same time, perhaps we ought to be devoting more attention to making the choices money provides available to more people. Health care, child care, and education all make people's lives better — all are affordable for the wealthy in America, but should be affordable for everyone. Ariel Gore defines happiness as "the ability to rejoice in the midst of suffering" — but equally important is the ability to get out of suffering, something that's currently much easier if you're rich.

Image via NYT.

On Top Of The Happiness Racket [NYT]
What Are The Economics Of Happiness? [Qn, via NYT Freakonomics Blog]
More Income, More Choices [NYT Freakonomics Blog]

Related: Happiness: A Buyer's Guide [Boston Globe]

Earlier: Is Happiness Work?