Friday, July 27, 2012

Money Can't Buy Happiness: Let's Talk About Money (Part 5)

This week has been all about the paradox of money and the American Dream mythos. We started out in Part 1 by looking at why we hold financial success up as the goal, but then vilify some who reach it. Part 2 used American Gangster and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to look at the fine line between criminality and innovation. Part 3 took Jay-Z and Kanye West's use of American Dream rhetoric to examine the rags-to-riches phenomenon. Part 4 looked at what happens when we try to divorce the hard work part away from the success part, especially by playing the lottery.

Today we're going to look at the tension between happiness and money, especially the way that we're fed conflicting messages about how the two intertwine.

Money Can't Buy Happiness

We've all heard the phrase "money can't buy happiness." And we've all seen the clever plays on this idea that suggest it's just something poor people say to make themselves feel better. 

t-shirt that says "money can't buy happiness, but then again have you ever seen an unhappy person on a jet ski?"
From Zazzle
But, in less sarcastic realms, we also focus on how "the best things in life are free," and we talk about how you can't put a price tag on things like friendship, love, and beauty.

The conflict comes when the corporate nature of the culture we live in then turns around and starts putting a price tag on friendship, love, and beauty. 

This conflict runs deep. There are studies that suggest you can't buy happiness, like this recent one that suggests happiness is tied to respect more than wealth. Then there are studies suggesting the opposite, like this one that says money can buy happiness if you spend it on other people. Most interesting to me is this study, which found that happiness rises right along with income--up to $75,000. After that, "it is just more stuff with no gain in happiness." And that makes some sense, right? After all, if you are living without the ability to pay for basic elements of security (housing, food, heat, clothes), then that's very likely going to impact your happiness. At the same time, a certain level of luxury spending (going to the movies, eating out, etc.) is likely to impact it as well. But at some point, you're not going to be able to get more bang for your buck, so to speak. 

The fact that there are even studies about this at all, though, suggests that we've noticed the conflict in our cultural mythos, and that conflict comes largely from the drastically different messages we receive.

On one hand, appreciating the qualities in life that can't be bought is seen as virtuous and important to enlightened living. On the other hand, doing that does just the opposite of what we talked about in Part 4 (where we divorced hard work from success through lotteries). When we say that happiness can be found without economic success, we also disrupt the American Dream (and the work ethic and potentially discrimination-erasing (read, ignoring) aspects of it that we've come to depend on). 

If we change the definition of success, we also risk changing the definition of hard work. Suddenly, there are a lot fewer people willing to slug away at jobs they hate if the carrot at the end of the stick has been moved. 

Corporations, Money, and Happiness

But that's not an easy carrot to move. For every time we see "The best things in life are free" cross-stitched into a doily, we're also seeing hundreds and hundreds of ads that send the exact opposite message. 

There are ads that tell us money can buy beauty, specifically, our own beauty:

calvin klein ad for perfume called Beauty

cover girl ad for mascara

Basically any "personal care" product you can think of, from hair brushes to tweezers, from firming lotion to after shave, depends on our belief that our beauty is flawed and that their product holds the repair. 

In many occasions, entire industries are predicated on creating "flaws" just so the company can fix them. (Check out this great article from Slate that looks at the history of body-shaming to sell products.)

There are plenty of companies that want us to think that money can buy love:
kay jewelers ad that says "Every kiss begins with Kay" over couple kissing

Some take it more literally than others:

eHarmony ad with couple describing meeting their soul mate through the service

We even get (perhaps subtler) messages that money can buy friends:

Budweiser's tagline of "Grab Some Buds" exemplifies this theme. And, to some extent, there's truth in this message. After all, picture a party without any of the purchased party accouterments we've come to expect. We use things we purchase to make social events run smoothly. 

There are even products whose entire marketing strategy exists around the idea that you can buy your way to an intangible experience

Consider how Jeep has set itself up as a (commodified) way to access adventure:

Or how cities and states attempting to draw upon tourist dollars frame themselves as ways to purchase an experience:

What's It Mean for the American Dream?

So, what's the answer? Can we buy happiness? 

I don't know. 

I know that money opens up a lot of possibilities that not having money shuts down. I know that we live in a culture where the purchasing of certain products is practically a necessity if you want to access certain social circles. This works in ways that are fairly expected--you're going to have to buy a suit to go to certain parties or work in certain offices, for instance. But it also works in ways that might be more under-the-surface--if you want to be considered in with the "hip" mommy crowd, you're going to feel pressured to buy a certain stroller brand, for example. And those distinctions are not always about demonstrating a greater level of wealth. It can also be about choosing ethical products or fitting into a group on the fringe of mainstream society. At the end of the day, though, it takes money to access most of those things. 

I guess the real question for me is one of chicken-or-the-egg. Which came first? Did we start demanding niche products to set ourselves apart, or did companies start creating images of niche lifestyles to increase demand for more products? 

While I suspect that companies--having more access to media outlets--have the upper hand in terms of power, I can't vilify them completely. We are a part of our culture, and we participate in the cycle. And I'm not even sure it's always a bad thing. After all, those products we buy, those things we create, they help us express ourselves and they employ people. (Plus, you know, Vegas is fun.) It's not always a simple equation. 

Still, I can't help but think that being bombarded with ads that tell us we can buy our way to "the best things in life" also work to reinforce an American Dream mythos that keeps us dependent on money. We're very invested in the economic definition of success, and the messages that undercut "you can't buy happiness" also prop up the American Dream at a place where it could be weakened and--quite rightfully--questioned. 

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