Money, fame and and our pursuit of happiness
Barely a day goes by without a celebrity or high profile public figure revealing their experience of depression.
Most recently, the heavy weight boxer Tyson Fury, told the media of his battle with depression and thoughts of suicide.
This raises several themes. First, that the many forms of depression affect a wide array of personality types. Second, that ‘celebrity depression’ focusses much-needed attention on the issue and highlights the fact that it can hit anyone. Third, the more that well-known personalities own-up to the condition, the less stigma is attached to it (and the more we can talk about it freely). And fourthly, it shows that success, fame and wealth do not necessarily bring happiness.
Which brings us to the intriguing possibility that each individual might actually have a ‘set-point’ of happiness; that whatever happens to us in life – good or bad – our perceived level of happiness will ultimately return, as time passes, to this fixed-point of happiness.
This is known in psychology as ‘hedonic adaptation’ or sometimes as the ‘hedonic treadmill’.
For example, if you win, say, a million pounds on the lottery, this is very likely to bring you an immediate burst of joy, relief that your financial worries are over and probably a period of relative perceived happiness. However, in many, if not most cases, the lottery winner will ‘adapt’ or ‘adjust’ to their new financial state and the happiness will wane over time. New concerns replace old pre-win worries and you realise that you are the same ‘you’.
Similarly, the loss of someone close to you is likely to be devastating – possibly triggering a period of deep depression which, at the time, can seem endless and unendurable. However, over a period of time – months or years – although the person may still be painfully missed, the level of happiness returns to a level similar to that experienced before the loss.
Now, it’s not entirely clear where (or how) that ‘set-point’ of hedonic adaptation is positioned –there are, it seems, optimistic and pessimistic personality types that would react differently to bereavement or a lottery win. Their optimal points of happiness are set at different levels – created by multiple causal factors.
So, in the case of ‘Tyson Fury’, although he is a multi-millionaire and has achieved most of his ambitions, his underlying depression can return.
It’s possible to work hard, invest, sacrifice and push your way to the top of your field, only to find yourself restless, unsatisfied and empty.
Money can contribute to happiness, but only up to a certain point.
Studies (and perhaps our own experience) have shown that once we have enough money to cover the necessities of life and a few luxuries, we reach a point of diminishing returns. Beyond the point of diminishing returns having more money doesn’t increase happiness and, in fact, can bring more worries and hassles. (Discovering that point of diminishing returns can be rather illusive though!)
Evidence also points to the idea that it’s experiences rather than material possessions (or cash) that bring greater happiness. The concept of ‘experiences’ should include the people we spend our time with – those that we find uplifting, inspiring and energising rather than those that suck the life out of us. Who’d want to be fabulously wealthy but surrounded only by irritating fools?
This idea of ‘experiences’ should also include your own health and well-being. Again, there’s no value in a huge bank balance that is the result of wrecked health and a shortened life. Surely our greatest asset is good health.
Depression, of course, can be rather more than just being unhappy, discontented or down. In the case of persistent, clinical depression, more radical solutions are needed. However, there are multiple examples (often celebrities reported in the media) of people who get through depression with talking therapy, self-help, exercise programmes, and dietary changes. Recent studies of the ability of the brain to change its wiring (neuroplasticity) give huge grounds for optimism – possibly even changing our ‘set-point’ of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness (and the avoidance of pain) has occupied humankind since the dawn of consciousness. Whole libraries are devoted to understanding and promoting it.
Fundamentally humans do not change over the centuries, so often the greatest wisdom can be found with ancient philosophers – particularly the Stoics.
As Epicurus said, “If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches, but take away from his desires.”