It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Ballad of Miss Jenny

Does money or wealth correlate to happiness?

An article on the New York Times says yes, albeit weakly. Here is the data for the 50 states of the USA, comparing mean income to an index of well-being. Yes, a trend is detectable, but it's pretty weak, too.

An article by Nate Hagens on Oil Drum entitled How $30,000 can be more than $300,000 argues pretty strongly the opposite. The author claims to be much happier than wealthy people of his acquaintance, and than himself at a much wealthier phase. My own anecdotal evidence is similar. I was much happier as a lower middle class child than as an upper middle class child. My father's abrupt financial success was a terrible blow to my social connectedness and identity.

Hagens also presents this fascinating picture of the great treadmill:

That picture is certainly one that tells a story.

And what are we to make of this story?

The Austin Statesman ran a feature about Jenny Nazak, a woman of my acquaintance who lives very frugally and takes pride in it. Jenny is an interesting character, and her charming wisdom doesn't come through in the article.

It's especially interesting how so many people commenting on the story were so threatened by it. (She is fastidiously clean, by the way; the claims to the contrary are inventions. It's also interesting how certain people feel compelled to make up false evidence when they aren't comfortable with the truth.)

Do I propose we all live like Jenny? I don't know. I don;t think going that far is necessary, and I don't think it's the path for me, now. Ultimately most of us may have to move in that direction, though, and the fate is nowhere near as bad as it's made out. Jenny seems to me one of the calmest and happiest people I have ever encountered. I'll leave you with a couple of Jenny pictures from her Facebook page.

Maybe you would rather have different pleasures, but is a life like that really a fate worse than death? Really?


EliRabett said...

There is a threshold income below which there is only absolute despair. A linear model here is inappropriate

Michael Tobis said...

Hmm, there is some sort of a threshold, but it would seem to depend on the wealth of the surroundings as well. To be unclothed, unsheltered, unfed or unsafe from violence is surely misery, and it seems to me entirely unnecessary.

Jenny escapes those things with an expenditure level tiny compared with the rest of us. But that may require living in a society so wasteful that all the scraps a smart person needs are there for the taking.

I think she is probably at greater risk than most of us if she gets ill or injured, which she also ought to be protected from.

An anecdote: she just gave her printer and scanner to her neighboring coffee shop because she didn't see why she should monopolize them. I'm not sure that will work out, but it does seem to show a sound impulse.

She also took considerable pride in owning that many fewer objects. It made me laugh; I'm not sure she even understood why.

Brian said...

The Red Queen at work. Parasites, predators and other humans were constantly trying to out-do us. The only way our genes survived was to take part in this arms race, to try to grab as much as possible and leave as many descendants as possible. We're the result of millions of years of selection pressure where whoever had more won, because they left more survivors. Its small wonder that this sort of pattern shows itself in more or less all our behavior.

Michael Tobis said...

Actually, the threshold idea may account for most or all of the difference in happiness as ,measured across states. The unhappiest states (Arkansas, Mississippi, West Virginia) being the ones where there are the most severe pockets of endemic poverty. The typical Arkansan may well be happier than the typical Connecticutian(?), er, Connecticutite(?), er, Hoosier, and this could be hidden in the graph by the averaging in of substantial populations of people doing badly.

guthrie said...

On the other hand, phsychologists have shown for what, 30 or 40 years that getting more wealth does not necessarily make you much or any happier. I don't recall anyone actually showing that Maslow's hierarchy of needs, crude though it is, is fundamentally wrong.
Eli is of course correct, in that below a certain threshold you can't be anything, but in my opinion, the aim of a civilised society, kind of like what we've been building on and off for the last 10,000 years, is to avoid anyone falling below that threshold.
Moreover competition is much overstated- for much of our history we lived in family groupings offering mutual support to each other and powerful people having more children didn't really come into the picture at all. We are not after all ruled by our selfish genes (which is to some extent a metaphor anyway), and plenty of accidents have happened to people, for example much of the english nobility who were around in the 13 or 1400s had died out a couple of centuries later, despite various attempts to produce progeny. Having children was chancy for almost everyone in society, so its not as simple as saying that people scrambled for resources and whoever had the most children won, especially since evolution has no teleology and the concept of winning is something we've tacked onto it to help desribe it.

Pico said...

It's amazing to see the contempt directed at her in the comments to that story.

Many people in the US seem to see frugality in others as some kind of threat. (I'm in Australia, I don't perceive that this is the case to the same degree here - but it probably exists here too.)

Given where the recession is heading, a lot of people are likely to have a lot of difficulties adapting to the new circumstances.

On that note; there is a fascinating interview here with a bloke by the name of Dimitri Orlov, who is predicting that there is a strong likelihood that that US will collapse as a consequence of this crisis, in the same manner that the Soviet Union did.

We won't be far behind if that's the case. Melbourne water storages are down to 30%. The solution was to be the construction of a massive desal plant. But financing has dried up because of the financial mess. Things are getting spooky.

Dano said...

I have it around here somewhere, but can't look for it at the moment...

I have a section of my shelf that has several books that have chapters discussing this issue ( I think McKibben looks at this). There is scholarship out there looking at this worldwide and find, in general, US$10,000.00/annum wage is enough for happiness, after that there is diminishing returns.



Rich Puchalsky said...

I agree with the "misery threshold" idea. But above that -- have you read Fred Hirsch's Social Limits To Growth? I think it's essential reading for anyone interested in these questions. In short, I think that the weak relationship between increasing wealth and increasing happiness may be largely because winning the competition for social status makes people happy. If you don't treat social status and positional goods as important, I don't think there's any real way to understand what's going on with plain income.

Michael Tobis said...

Rich, agreed, and Jenny's delight at having two fewer objects is an object lesson, so to speak.

Dano said...

Pico wrote:

Many people in the US seem to see frugality in others as some kind of threat.

Exactly so. This negates much of what we are acculturated with, and those that take their identities from without are thus threatened.



ourchangingclimate said...

“Beyond a threshold of absolute income already passed in the West, welfare or self-evaluated happiness becomes a function of relative income rather than absolute income.” (Herman Daly)

This is confirmed by the

I reproduced a particularly nice graph here, showing how wellbeing depends on income up to a certain point. (Based on a post at "In it" pointing to a great Herman Daly presentation).


tidal said...

Catch a Cannonball, now, t'take me down the line
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time.
To get back to Miss ***** Jenny,
you know she's the only one.
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

My wife and I are engaged in a systematic campaign to give away our unneeded "stuff"--and we are continually surprised to find out just how much stuff we don't really need. Do I need 20 sweaters in the closet? If I just had 7 I'd have one for every day in the week. Books? I love my books, but how about the ones I never read and am probably never going to read? DVDs and tapes ditto. And all the weird little stuff, decorations kept in closets, tools we never actually use, the list just goes on.

As we clear stuff out, the house gets easier to clean and take care of, and roomier. And by giving stuff to thrift shops and so on, it might go to people who actually need it and can get it cheaply at such shops.

James Annan said...

"Many people in the US seem to see frugality in others as some kind of threat."

Any cyclist knows this - but it's not limited to the USA, the UK is much the same. Not that cycling is /necessarily/ frugal, but it is widely considered to be.

ourchangingclimate said...

"Many people in the US seem to see frugality in others as some kind of threat."

"Any cyclist knows this - but it's not limited to the USA, the UK is much the same. Not that cycling is /necessarily/ frugal, but it is widely considered to be."

Glad I live in Holland!

tidal said...

I've been riding my bike to and from the office - about 12km each way - March to November, for the last 15 years. It's always been just because I enjoy it.

There are about 80 in our office. I am the only one that rides and it's viewed as somewhat eccentric/reckless behaviour. Sad. Oh well... I do know that the number of cyclists has increased dramatically the past few years - just observing the fellow travellers on my route and the number of bikes locked up in the storage areas...

Dano said...

Like tidal, in CA I rode 3x/week ~20km one way, but year-round. At first I was seen as eccentric, but then more and more folk caught on, and by the time I left that company, we had to get more lockers in the locker room.