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When Money Meets Misery
July 01, 2013

When Money Meets Misery

Sangeetha Madhavan works 365 days a year, 14 hours a day.  While some employers offer sick leave, his doesn’t.  If he misses a workday, his company charges him $130.   A nasty flu could cost him a thousand dollars (not including medical expenses) if he had to take a week off.

Based on international pollster Gallup, he lives in the world’s most stoic and negative country.   When Yahoo! reported news of this first world country’s misery, hundreds of its citizens added their agreement.  

Gallup crowned its Scrooge after asking 1,000 people in 148 countries a series of questions.  Did they feel respected?  Were they well rested?  Did they laugh or smile much?  And did they recently learn something interesting.  

Now here’s the shocking part.  This same country, ranked least positive, is also the world’s richest based on GDP per capita.  Singapore. 

The Easterlin Paradox, named after USC professor Richard Easterlin suggested in 1974 that, beyond a certain point, people don’t report greater satisfaction levels as they grow wealthier.  Singapore may be a case in point.

More recently, Forbes magazine writer, Michael I. Norton stated “that once people reach the median income in the U.S. (about $60,000), the happiness return on additional income is very small.”

However, University of Michigan economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found different results.  They used a world Gallup poll asking respondents to rank themselves on a “satisfaction ladder” from zero to ten.  Respondents then reported their incomes, with the results contradicting the Easterlin Paradox.  People reported higher levels of happiness as they grew wealthier.

If that’s the case, why might the world’s richest country also be the most miserable?  Cultural stinginess could be the culprit.  Sangeetha Madhavan drives a taxi in Singapore.  Every day, he pays the taxi company $130 for the use of the cab.  If he wants a day off, that’s too bad.  He has to eat the $130 daily rental fee.

Clearly, Madhavan isn’t among the 17 percent of Singaporeans with one million dollars of investable assets.  But he could be happier than the taxi company’s owners.  Generosity, it seems, improves human happiness levels.  Stinginess, as demonstrated by his employer, may hurt it.

Authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton wrote a wonderful book titled, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.  Material purchases, they found, give little long- term satisfaction.  Instead, buying experiences like holidays or novel adventures provide far more bang for the buck.  What’s more, the authors report that giving money away appears to be more satisfying than spending it ourselves.

Rather than buying a new dining room set or an upgraded vehicle, you might be better off taking your loved ones on a trip.  Instead of burying yourself in work to further your bank balance, giving money away could pay richer dividends.

Stinginess, as demonstrated by many rich Singaporeans, may be the root of their misery.  Roughly 20 percent of Singaporean households have full-time maids.  Before 2013, they weren’t entitled to a single day off.  Maids worked 365 days a year, for as little as $250 per month.

This lack of generosity, perhaps, has worked its way into the psyche of the world’s richest country.  Let it be a lesson to us all.  Money doesn’t equal happiness.  As Thornton Wilder once said, “Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow.”

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