Money won’t buy you happiness?

The students and professionals in my research (Historically Informed Performance freelancers) reported being passionate about what they did, mentioning more creative freedom, more responsibility, and more communication with the audience than they believed they would experience in a “mainstream” salaried orchestral job.

They also reported that they believed 50% of their colleagues could not make ends meet from performance work (the professionals) and that it would be very difficult to finance a family (the students). The professionals who had been in performance for longer than 10 years reported a negative trend with regard to income opportunity which they believed would continue in the future. None of them spoke about being so unhappy that they wanted to change profession.

Faced with these results – this passion and fulfilment at the same time as a negative forecast for future income prospects – I asked myself what value these people were attributing to what they did that was so important that it overrode financial worry, and why this even worked.

My reading took me into the realms of Happiness Economics and psychology, where I discovered how very important cultural value is when it comes to “being happy”, or “long-term subjective wellbeing”.

I discovered the “Easterlin paradox”, named after Richard Easterlin, whose research suggested that increase of a country’s GDP does not mean that individuals in that country feel increasingly happy. He also suggested that over one person’s lifespan, when income increased over time, reported wellbeing didn’t.

Whether Easterlin’s view is correct or not has been fiercely debated in the academic literature, and one opposing view argues that feelings of happiness are just an evolutionary twist to get people to carry on evolving.

As I see it, both views are possible – one of them is about single bursts of feeling happy because something good just happened, the other one is about long-term life satisfaction.

It’s this long-term life satisfaction that interests me, particularly in the case of my professionals, where theirs really doesn’t seem to have anything much to do with economic value beyond being able to make ends meet.

Happiness Economics has, over the last decades, become an important branch of economics. It disagrees with the neoclassical economic view that people are only interested in outcomes. One collection of essays on the subject was co-authored and edited by Bruno Frey (who’s been featured heavily in this blog so far):  Happiness: A Revolution in Economics. Frey suggests that people can gain positive returns (“utility”) not just from outcomes, but also from processes themselves (“procedural utility”):

“Procedural utility exists because procedures provide important feedback information to the self. Specifically, they address innate psychological needs of self-determination differently. Psychologists have identified three such psychological needs as essential: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.” (Frey 2008:109)

In the case of the people in my research, they report that “doing HIP” – a process of rehearsal and performance that definitely takes place over time – makes them happy, so this idea of “procedural utility” seems to apply to them (especially since the outcome involves not enough money, as they also report).

In the quote above, Frey refers to the work of two psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who developed a theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory.

In their paper “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior” (Deci & Ryan 2000), Deci and Ryan explore the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic needs, where “autonomy, relatedness, and competence” are considered intrinsic needs because they have been show to apply to all people, regardless of age, ethnicity, or citizenship.

Autonomy refers to a person’s degree of self-determination in life decisions, relatedness refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a group, and competence refers to a person’s feeling that they are able to do a job adequately. Anything which does not refer to these three intrinsic needs is classified as an extrinsic need.

Deci and Ryan (2000:247) find that “whereas the attainment of intrinsic life goals is associated with enhanced well-being, the attainment of extrinsic life goals (once one is above poverty level) appears to have little effect on well-being.”

My research results suggest that the HIP musicians’ intrinsic needs are being met by their chosen profession:

The musicians in my study report a great deal of “autonomy” – not just because they are freelance, but also because they have enhanced creative freedom in their place of work. I infer that the professionals also experienced a good deal of “competence” because they were part of an internationally acclaimed orchestra. Most of the students were aspiring towards a career with their own ensemble, one reason why they had decided to study HIP, and this goal aims for experiencing both “autonomy” and “competence”. The reports by both students and professionals regarding high levels of emotional communication with the audience I would categorise under “relatedness”, the feeling that they belong to a group.

Harvard University’s longest running study on what makes people happy suggests that of all three intrinsic values, “relatedness” is the most important. There’s a TED talk about the study and how it is first and foremost the support of real life social networks such as family and friends that contributes towards long-term well-being.

“Relatedness”, seen at the level of the state, is possibly exactly what was lacking in the case of the Brexit vote. Disenfranchised voters felt that Westminster was not properly addressing their needs (such as “autonomy” and the opportunity to experience “competence” – see here for an excellent analysis of the sociology of Brexit), and therefore voted against the government stance and for change, whatever that meant. The “leave” voters felt that they neither identified with nor belonged to the group of people ruled by Westminster. “Relatedness” appears to be the intrinsic need that, above the other two, promotes social cohesion.

This all suggests that the high status enjoyed by economic value as compared to cultural value at a societal level is not going to make any of us happier – money, indeed, won’t buy happiness, unless you are spending it on real life experiences that involve cultural value…

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