Academic journal article Journal of Social Research & Policy

The Duality of Wealth: Is Material Wealth Good or Bad for Well-Being?

Academic journal article Journal of Social Research & Policy

The Duality of Wealth: Is Material Wealth Good or Bad for Well-Being?

Article excerpt


This paper first examines if, and how material wealth is related to the different components of subjective well-being (SWB). Greater wealth is related to higher life evaluation and, to a limited extent, higher emotional well-being (more positive feelings and less negative feelings). The beneficial impact of wealth on happiness holds true at both the individual and national levels. However, although economic growth brings about greater happiness, excessive pursuit of wealth is detrimental to SWB, leading to lower life satisfaction and greater negative affect. The paper then reviews the negative impact of affluence on quality of life, and how that in turn diminishes SWB. Next, the paper assesses why wealth is a weak predictor of emotional well-being, by drawing on needs theories as explanations. Finally, the synthesis of the various findings suggests that although material wealth enhances happiness, it can also exert indirect deleterious effects on well-being.

Keywords: Wealth; Well-being; Happiness; Economic growth; Affluence.

The Duality of Wealth: Is Material Wealth Good or Bad for Well-being?

Is material wealth2 good or bad for happiness? For centuries, there have been opposing views on this question. "A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of" (Jane Austen). Advocates who argue that material wealth is beneficial to happiness note that economic growth and individual wealth increase the standard of living and enhance well-being (e.g., Deaton, 2008; Diener et al., 2010a; Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). On the other hand, opponents of this belief emphasize the importance of values and psychological needs for well - being, suggesting that focusing on material aspects of life may lead to the erosion and negligence of these essential values and needs (e.g., Inglehart et al., 2008; Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Ryan & Deci, 2001). "Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants" (Benjamin Franklin). Despite the ubiquitous interest and multitude of research conducted in this area, there has been no unanimous answer to this question.

Perhaps this is because the key parameter in the question, happiness3, is a multifaceted construct. Defined as comprising three components- life satisfaction, positive affect (PA), and negative affect (NA), attaining a high level of happiness/ subjective well-being (SWB) refers to having high PA, low NA, and high life satisfaction (Diener et al., 1999). Life satisfaction refers to a cognitive, global evaluation of one's overall life, while PA and NA respectively reflect the extent to which people experience pleasant emotions an d moods or unpleasant emotions and moods (Diener, 2000). Together, PA and NA constitute the everyday affective experiences of an individual- that is, emotional well-being. It is possible that the cognitive and emotional components of SWB relate differently to material wealth, which may contribute to the conflicting answers to the question. Furthermore, use of different indicators across various studies may also produce contradictory results, as these various indicators may relate differently to SWB. Finally, individual and societal wealth can also exert different effects on SWB, hence it is imperative to examine the relations between wealth and well-being at both the individual- and nation-levels.

How is Wealth Related to Well-being?

Before assessing whether material wealth is good or bad for well-being, it is germane to first clarify how it is related to happiness. Earlier studies in psychology found that income has no further effect on life satisfaction beyond a threshold level of income (Diener & Biwas-Diener, 2002). One explanation is that at the lower levels of income, money is essential for fulfilling basic survival needs such as food and shelter (Howell & Howell, 2008). Having enough money can mean the difference between having enough to eat and having proper housing versus going hungry and being homeless. …

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