The Lottery Of Life

Sixteenth instalment - on happiness

To me this world is a wonderful place

I’m the luckiest human in the human race

I’ve got no silver and I’ve got no gold

But I’ve got happiness in my soul

Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess

I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed

With more than my share of happiness

In this instalment of this blog I propose to attempt to stitch together the lyrics quoted above, as sung by the comedian Ken Dodd (the chap in the photo above); the concept of hygiene factors; and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The song lyrics are self-explanatory (although I will note in passing that it was a bit rich for Ken Dodd to claim that he had no silver and no gold).

‘Hygiene factor’ is an expression used in personnel management in workplaces. This is extracted from what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

The two-factor theory states that there are certain factors in the workplace that cause job satisfaction while a separate set of factors cause dissatisfaction, all of which act independently of each other. It was developed by psychologist Frederick Herzberg.

Two-factor theory distinguishes between:

    • Motivators (eg challenging work, recognition for one’s achievement, responsibility, opportunity to do something meaningful, involvement in decision making, sense of importance to an organization) that give positive satisfaction
    • Hygiene factors (eg status, job security, fringe benefits, work conditions, good pay, paid insurance, vacations) that do not give positive satisfaction or lead to higher motivation, though dissatisfaction results from their absence. The term “hygiene” is used in the sense that these are maintenance factors.

According to Herzberg, the absence of hygiene factors causes dissatisfaction among employees in the workplace.

So: hygiene factors are the things that, when present, prevent you from feeling pissed off at work; when they are absent, no matter how inspiring your manager and the organisation, you’ll feel pissed off.

I think you’ll easily see the relationship between the concept of hygiene factors and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Once again from the repository of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest, most fundamental needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization and transcendence at the top. In other words, the idea is that individuals’ most basic needs must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher-level needs.

The most fundamental four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met there may not be a physical indication (although there may well be if the most basic, physiological, needs are not met), but the individual will feel anxious and tense.

Herzberg’s two-factor theory is based on research in workplaces; Maslow was a psychologist and his hierarchy of needs derives from his studies of psychological ailments. However it seems to me that both have arrived at the same broad conclusion, and that it’s a conclusion that can be applied to life in general: there are certain basic needs that must be met before a person can start to take delight in being alive. You need shelter, adequate food, security, before you can be happy.

If that is the case, then the question of happiness is related to the subject of the previous instalment of this blog: wealth and poverty. And the relationship is this: in any society a person needs a certain level of wealth in order to be able to obtain shelter, adequate food, and financial security.

A person with the means to equip him or her self with those necessary basic needs has then the possibility of being happy. Conversely, a person without the means to obtain such things as shelter and adequate food has little chance of happiness.

I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love. Or so the Beatles insisted.

And that’s the next question. If lack of money prevents happiness, is it the case that for wealthy people happiness increases in proportion to their wealth?

The starting point for research into this topic was a 2010 paper that concluded:

In the present study, we confirm the contribution of higher income to improving individuals’ life evaluation, even among those who are already well off. However, we also find that the effects of income on the emotional dimension of well-being satiate fully at an annual income of ∼$75,000(Kahneman and Deaton, 2010, p. 16490).

In other words, above a certain level of wealth, more wealth produced no more happiness.

Subsequent research (Killingworth, 2021) found that there was no such ceiling to happiness: the more money, the happier.

The authors of the above conflicting reports then got together and carried out further research, arriving at the conclusion that – it’s complicated.

However all of this, and similar, research is based on surveys: what people say when asked questions about wealth and happiness. And it seems to me that in Western, capitalist societies there is an expectation, a belief, that amassing money is a good thing; that it will bring happiness. Therefore it’s not surprising that people with lots of money declare themselves to be happier than people with less money.

I suspect this is all eyewash. I have searched the worldwide web for any academic paper on the subject of whether humans have a happiness ceiling: it seems no one has considered this a subject worthy of research. It is in truth a philosophical, rather than a psychological, question.

When I reflect on my own life, though, I can’t help agreeing with Maslow and Herzberg that being happy is difficult when one’s basic needs are not met. My experience is that when those needs are met, one’s level of happiness bears very little relationship to one’s level of wealth. Please indulge me while I provide a few examples of my own.

As can be seen elsewhere on this web site, I have owned many cars, and driven many more. I derive pleasure from driving; it makes me happy. But I can drive only one car at a time; having the resources to own a fleet of vehicles wouldn’t make me any happier than having just one. One of my favourite foods is clams: I love them with chillies in spaghetti, or with cannellini beans cooked in vermouth. Eating clams makes me happy; but once I’ve eaten my dinner, eating more clams wouldn’t make me happier. It would make me feel ill.

I can’t see any logical connection – no cause and effect – between having the money to buy several cars and the pleasure of driving; between having the money to buy several kilos of clams (they’re not cheap!) and the pleasure of eating a meal with just enough clams in it.

In fact, is it possible to compare different happinesses? Driving my car, eating clams, listening to fado music – all of these things make me happy, but I’m banjaxed if I can arrange them into a hierarchy. Seeing Paul McCartney and Wings at Wembley Arena in 1979 made me very happy; so did seeing Ana Moura at the Turner Sims concert hall just few years ago. I was wealthier when I saw Ana Moura then I was in 1979 – but I don’t think the level or nature of my happiness at the two concerts was in any way different or in any way related to my bank balance.

In sum, I think a person can be happy or not. Once the basic requirements are met, happiness becomes much more possible; the frequency and intensity of happiness varies from person to person, and that variation is due largely to differences in genetic inheritance and early upbringing; but for each individual, at any particular time, happiness just is or isn’t. It doesn’t get bigger because you’ve got more money.

And before you start complaining that I’m talking about moments of pleasure rather than general levels of contentment, I think the same approach obtains. One is either contented or discontented; I can’t conceive of a hierarchy of contentments. Once you’re content, how much more content can you be?

I’m really quite happy now (and contented), as I approach the end of this instalment, and as I prepare to uncloak the conclusion.

The conclusion is this: if all of the aforesaid in this instalment is correct, then we have here not merely a philosophical argument but also a political programme. Giving money to poor people causes their luck in life to improve (see the previous instalment) and provides them with the opportunity to be happy; but depriving wealthy people of some of their money does not reduce their happiness. Redistribute some wealth from the rich to the poor – seems like a good idea to me. 

Having veered slightly off topic in this instalment, in the next I’ll return to my main theme – the acquisition of good and bad luck – and I’ll consider the way in which, as a person grows up and goes through life, both good and bad luck tend to be self-reinforcing.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.