My F&M


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Dr. Biswas-Diener, known to many as the “Indiana Jones of positive psychology”, has traveled the globe and written several articles and books.  He is best known for his pioneering work in the application of positive psychology.   

Here is a preview of his presentation:

“For millennia philosophers, scholars, religious thinkers and lay people have all asked the question, “does money buy happiness?” This was the topic of my own curiosity when I first traveled to Calcutta to better understand the lives of the people living in dire poverty. I am a social scientist who has made a career out of investigating happiness. I am interested in who has it, where they get it, and what it does when they have it. When I told my friends and colleagues that I was traveling to sprawling slum areas in India to seek answers to happiness I was greeted by a range of responses. One group of people was skeptical. Let’s call them the “money-does-buy-happiness” group. They scratched their heads at my apparent fool’s errand and referred me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If people are hungry and without shelter, the logic goes, then they will be unable to achieve personal empowerment and bliss. Many representatives from this group pointed out that the slum dwellers of Calcutta were without many of the luxuries and conveniences that we enjoy in the West: vacuum cleaners, Harry Potter novels, air conditioning, and home-made ice-cream. The other intellectual camp was principally composed of “romanticists.” These were folks who took me aside and confided—as if we were conspirators—that “poor people are the only ones who can ever know true happiness.” The rich, according to this logic, were unable to navigate all their stuff on their own personal journey to happiness. For people from this latter group the idea of the simple village life was one of lazy afternoons and permanent smiles. I was eager to see which group was correct.

You might be wondering how we—psychologists and other happiness experts—go about the business of measuring such an elusive phenomenon. Good question and the complete answer has filled several books and dozens of academic papers. The simplest way to get at a person’s happiness is simply to ask him. Not a perfect measure, to be sure, but it definitely gets you in the ball park (we have tested this method against others, such as double checking answers with family members or tracking moods randomly throughout the week and it turns out to be a fairly decent gauge of happiness). In Calcutta I asked a wide range of questions about emotions as well as about satisfaction with various aspects of life such as one’s social life, health, physical appearance, income, and many others. What I discovered was that there was an element of truth to both assumptions about the happiness of the poor. On the one hand, poverty certainly took its toll on the people I met. They experienced high rates of anger, sadness and worry. They were dissatisfied with their health, housing and income. On the other hand, they enjoyed consistent happiness in their social lives, reporting high amounts of trust, connectedness, and satisfaction with their family relationships. What’s more, they thought well of themselves. Despite their poor conditions they reported feeling smart, good looking, and moral.

In the end, attention to material concerns such as those that lead to comfort, security, health, and safety would enhance the quality of life of the poor people with whom I spoke. On the other hand, solid social relationships appeared to partially buffer these people from the more dire effects of poverty. This is a simple illustration that the answer to the question “does money buy happiness” is more than a sound byte or fortune cookie wisdom. It is complex and fascinating; you should hear the results of our study of Americans who are worth more than 125 million dollars!”