He who dies with the most toys – is still dead

The Skeptic column of Scientific American this month talks about the paradox of happiness. (Scientific American: Can’t Get No Satisfaction). Namely, nobody can be happy with what they have, if their neighbor seems to have more. In the words of H. L. Mencken: “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Richard Lay­ard in Happiness […] shows that we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950 and “we have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health.” Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness. Why? One, our genes account for roughly half of our predisposition to be happy or unhappy, and two, our wants are relative to what other people have, not to some absolute measure.

Furthermore, people aren’t very good about predicting what will make them happy, according to Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness. Lots of variety (in snacks for instance), quickly loses its appeal. People given lots of variety are no happier than those who just eat their favorite snacks.

Even variety in sexual partners is greatly over-rated. According to Social Organization of Sexuality, “married people have more sex than singles–and more orgasms”.