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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, Professor Emeritus of the School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra.

The price of happiness

Mon, 22 Feb 2016 14:42:00 +0000 Published in Diari de Tarragona

Every man and every woman aspires by nature to be happy; it is something specific to human beings. This aspiration is frustrated when happiness is confused with what it is not; also when we seek it in an anxious way. Today there is a tendency to pursue a utilitarian happiness, understood only as sensible pleasure and immediate satisfaction. 

Aristotle said that happiness is not in the ephemeral (sensible things and pleasures), but in the honest life, according to virtue; that is why he advised to live and act well(eudaimonia), which included leading an austere life.

Happiness includes a certain Degree of pleasure and material well-being, but pleasure and well-being are not, by themselves, source of happiness. Happiness is a spiritual reality; that is why no materialism has been able to make man happy, including consumerism. In today's "civilization of things" we try to buy and sell happiness as if it were just another product of the consumer society. 

The habit of buying the latest manufactured object with a blind faith that it will help us to live and feel better is spreading: armchairs to relax, pillows to sleep in one go, belts to lose weight, etc. These are not necessarily compulsive shoppers, but people who feel driven to fill some inner emptiness; they associate certain superfluous purchases with their lack of self-esteem and identity and cling to them as if they were lifelines to salvation Whether or not they are aware of it, they try to buy happiness. But that approach doesn't work: after buying the latest and most expensive gadget on the market, they feel good about themselves, but when they discover that they are measuring themselves in relation to what they have bought and not who they are, their self-esteem drops, prompting them to buy something else. It will not be easy for them to escape from this vicious cycle.

The slogan "to happiness through consumerism" is discredited by experience and by the moral of Tolstoy's famous story "The Happy Man's Shirt". I summarize the argument: 

"The king who had everything in the material had no health; he was afflicted by a mysterious illness that his doctors were unable to cure, but they did dare to diagnose it: "His Majesty suffers from chronic unhappiness and can only be cured by putting on the shirt of a happy man". This man was found by the king's emissaries neither among the wisest nor among the richest in the kingdom, but among the poorest. He was a hermit who lived in a cave; they discovered him because he was very happy. He confessed that he was very happy because he was content with the little he had without needing anything more. When the emissaries asked him to buy his shirt, he replied that he didn't have one.

This conformity to one's own fate, without ambition, is what Aristotle called autarchy.

The question of whether money does or does not bring happiness is currently being hotly debated.

A study conducted by a team of psychologists from The University of British Columbia concludes that money does not bring happiness; it is only a psychological financial aid to feel less sad and unhappy on a daily basis.

For B. Villaseca, "money can provide us with a very comfortable and pleasant lifestyle, as well as a false sense of security, but it cannot buy our happiness. Because our emotional well-being does not depend on what we do or what we have, but on who we are and how we feel". 

There are also people in favor of the thesis that with more money we can buy more happiness, without being aware that they are confusing happiness with material well-being. These people believe in the existence of the supposed binomial: "money-happiness". These two realities cannot be dependent on each other. A good example is that of those who, after winning the lottery, externalize their joy in a disproportionate and disproportionate way; in the end it is due to something more than just being nouveau riche: they associate money with happiness.

Two comic vignettes express this very well:


-Money does not make happiness. Everyone knows that.

-Of course not. You make happiness with money."


 -Do you know that money does not bring happiness?

-It's possible, but I'll cry sitting in my Ferrari.


To avoid false illusions, "happiness buyers" should be aware in time of Aristotle's authoritative thesis : human happiness is based on self-realization acquired through the exercise of virtue. In this laborious and permanent process there is no room for shortcuts.