There are informal fields of study in the social sciences that seek to define and quantify the concept of happiness. For economists, it has a price tag — the amount of money a person needs in order to feel secure enough to pursue what makes them happy. But for sociologists and psychologists, it’s about what people do with their resources to improve their emotional health and reach a point of ongoing personal satisfaction.
What constitutes a happy life is an intrinsically personal and subjective question. It’s interesting, however, to see how research reveals a nexus between materialism and altruism that can mark a defining point in whether someone considers him or herself to be “happy.” While acquiring a measure of material wealth is important for security, research also shows that volunteer work, donations to charity and simple acts of kindness or service to others are also influential as components of happiness.
On the economics side, recent studies show that there is a point at which people earn enough money to be able to claim a state of happiness. After reaching that level, increased wealth fails to proportionately increase happiness. A study co-authored by a University of Utah scholar pegs that point at about $105,000 in annual income for an individual. The research says people can reach a point of emotional well-being at lower income levels — around $60,000 to $75,000 for an individual — a level at which most people can afford to worry less about material security.
A factor that comes into play is the psychological need to compare oneself with others when deciding where they are on the social ladder. The need to “keep up with the Joneses” can skew the income and wealth numbers — usually higher.
On the philanthropic side, numerous studies have shown people who place less emphasis on their social status and more on helping others are more likely to describe themselves as happy. Some studies have actually measured brain activity among people after performing an act of generosity. They reveal a clear connection between a sense of personal well-being and activity that aids the well-being of others.
While a correlation between income levels and happiness is logical, the connection to acts of giving to others lies more in the realm of a person’s spiritual orientation. The research that confirms a connection between giving and happiness infers that people are inherently altruistic, and that helping others is a compelling human urge.13 comments on this story
The arc of the path to happiness does not preclude one from being generous while still in the process of achieving material security. Still, the notion of material security is relative. It’s up to the individual to find satisfaction in the physical environment, whether others may judge it as relatively sparse or luxurious. Acts of charity, too, are relative to a person’s ability to share time and resources.
The research would posit that happiness is the result of fulfilling our selfish needs to find security, but that must be balanced by unselfish desires to help others reach security as well. So rather than squandering extra hours pursuing more material wealth, perhaps an act of kindness for a neighbor today or a charitable gesture to a loved one will add the increase of happiness that human nature so often craves.