Dispatches | December 04, 2006

Recently the subject of happiness has received a lot of attention from psychologists, economists, and historians.  Invariably, the discussion turns toward whether money brings happiness.  Of course, no one denies that being poor leaves you stressed, anxious and genuinely miserable.  But most happiness theorists contend that once our physiological needs are met, wealth beyond a yearly income of $50,000 a year (getting up there for many writers) does not significantly budge our feel-good threshold.  In fact, as the theory goes, millionaires are no happier than those with a tenuous grasp on the middle class, which is most of us. 

The same theorists remind us that as Americans we have never had more economic muscle.  Virginia Woolf longed for a room of her own; today the average American has 2.7 rooms and a third of all families own more than three cars.  About ninety percent of my students at Stephens have always had their own bedroom, and most of them also brought to college a car, a computer, a cell phone, an I-Pod and suitcases full of shoes and clothes.  So why aren’t they happier?  Why do only a third of Americans report feeling satisfied. 

Gregg Easterbrook, author of The Progress Paradox, coins the term reference anxiety, a new fangled phrase for the age-old pressure to keep up with the Jones.  We feel fine about our 2-bedroom house as long as everyone else has the same size house, but if your 2-bedroom resides on a block of McMansions, suddenly you feel deprived.  Unfortunately, the thrill of moving up quickly dissipates as we get used to our more spacious surroundings. 

Writers are familiar with reference anxiety.  We tend to compare our literary success to other writers’.  We forget about the insurmountable odds that we are up against in the first place.  Writers of literary fiction and poetry face a diminished readership and a shrinking number of paying venues.  At the same time, more people are writing and seeking publication.  It should strike us as no small miracle that an editor wants to see our work in print.  Yet I hear fellow writers complain — for example, when they are finalists in prestigious book contests — always a bridesmaid, never a bride.  I want to say, at least you’re a member of the wedding party.

And as for money, I rely on Colonel Sanders:  “There’s no reason to be the richest man in the graveyard.  You can’t do any business from there.”