by Mohamedarif Suleman (Nairobi, Kenya)
Truly sounds ridiculous to even pose that question, ne? Well, modern scientists don’t think alike then. And while most people’s lives circulate around money, earnings and economic planning – including settlement, migration, education and other future planning pointers, the effect that money has on people is as diverse as it is profound. Diverse because we are each motivated to higher economic grounds by varying factors as we are driven to financial turmoil by equally different reasons; and profound because as we now see – when the leader of a former European power waddles across oceans to meet with an outgoing US leader to address an impending crisis, you can tell the news is not all that gladsome.
The periscopic view that would be required of this macro economic discussion would perhaps outpace the scope of this article, but what can be of interest to us is what scientists tell us about what money does or does not do with regards to happiness, or talk about the social myths surrounding riches and alas a fleeting glance at the way Islam portrays wealth and its essence to human living.
Money is the root cause of evil is to date the most used (or misused adage) and is frequently used to serve the interests of those who either have no money themselves to spite the rich or by those who have so much of it but do not wish to part with it and utilise the opportunity to advise others against it ( a la “I have been a smoker all my life and so I should know best its harms, son. My advise to you is don’t smoke!). Less known proverbs tell us some more interesting perceptions about money and wealth – The safe way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket. ~Frank Hubbard (anti investment sentiment? Economic sense?) or when Mark Twain replicates such double-speak with “I am opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position”; or the more intelligent caution “They who are of the opinion that Money will do everything, may very well be suspected to do everything for Money.” ~George Savile, Complete Works, 1912′ and lastly the scary one – “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.” ~Cree Indian Proverb.
There are many more but these just about suffice to highlight how obsessive the discussion around scarce dollars and euros and those who own them is the pick of the day in many forums, preachings and gatherings. Pointing fingers at the rich, we may just be subscribing to Mark Twain’s ethos and risk leading a hypocritical life chasing money ourselves and renaming this pursuit “I am securing my future and that of my children”. In reality, money has its own special place which is key to the fulfillment of our existences – not just mundane, but rather those divinely delegated ones such as being able to spend time in serving the religion of Allah (SWT). After all, our Aimmah (AS), in prescribing the various jewels in the form of duas to us, exhort us to pray to Allah (SWT) for providing us with economic non-dependence on any other than Him, and also a life in which other worries or pressures do not embroil us to the point of failing to meet our this commitment – of say propagation and da’awah.
In October 2000, the Business Week carried a title under a similar header and reported how affluence was permeating into the economic welfare of most Americans. It quickly poses a stark question “So you might think that Americans would be a lot more content and satisfied with their lives, particularly since material success looms so large in the nation’s psyche”, and then rushing to offer an answer in the negative based on various studies and samples. It postulates that Americans were in fact becoming less happy simply because overshadowing such economic gains were a cluster of social trends (David G Blanchflower and Andrew J Oswald, National Bureau of Economic Research Study).
They found that higher incomes do bring happiness but the impact is much less. These were quickly eroded by other issues such as gender and marital status. And one coincidental result is that despite the giant strides women have made in their role in society and economics, they have grown significantly less content over time. Regardless of how much wealth one possessed, being married, the study says, makes people higher in the happiness continuum while distantly following them are couples who are separated, divorced or widowed, necessarilly in that order. At the end, it suggest that those who think income gains alone guarantee greater happiness are deluding themselves as their competitive forces have a much greater effect on psychological costs – the key word being psychology, or of the mind which is the centre of happiness and other emotional feelings (not the blood pumping heart as we fondly make reference to).
A much more plausible and contomporary view is offered by David Leonhardt when his April 2008 published article in the Washington Post describes the case of Japan. In “Maybe Money does buy happiness…” he cites: In the aftermath of World War II, the Japanese economy went through one of the greatest booms the world has ever known. From 1950 to 1970, the economy’s output per person grew more than sevenfold. Japan, in just a few decades, remade itself from a war-torn country into one of the richest nations. Yet strangely, Japanese citizens didn’t seem to become any more satisfied with their lives. According to one poll, the percentage of people who gave the most positive possible answer about their life satisfaction actually fell from the late 1950s to the ’70s. They were richer but aparently, no happier. This contrast became the most famous example of a theory known as the Easterlin Paradox – named thus after Richard Easterlin (1974, University of Pennsylvania) who in his published study argued that economic growth did not necessarilly lead to more satisfaction.
Like all other tools offered to us in this world, if we humanly try to change the purpose for which they were created, we will be disappointed – less happier, less satisfied. And yes, in that context money cannot buy happiness. In answer to the question that this title seeks to ask, each one of us may respond differently, but a conjoining question must then be asked was money or wealth designed to give us happiness? If not, then is it appropriate of us to think of money in each of the decisions we make?