Cornell University Professor Robert Frank, cited in a Reuters story on the price of happiness that Tren Griffin pointed me to, says a majority of Americans, asked whether they would rather earn $110,000 while everyone else earned $200,000, or earn $100,000 while everyone else earned $85,000, chose option B.
In a recent memo to clients, strategist James Montier noted that, "Since the 1950s, people's happiness levels have been remarkably constant despite a massive growth in income-per-head over the same time horizon." Among the top 10 generators of happiness, alongside sleep, exercise and enjoying the moment, was sex. Economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of Warwick University studied 16,000 Americans and calculated that going from having sex monthly to weekly gave about the same happiness as a $50,000 raise.
Happiness, according to this kind of analysis, amounts to comparing yourself to people who are less well off than you. This ought not to hard, since there are so many ways in which people are different - surely there will be at least one way you're better off than any person you might pick. It doesn't work, of course; if it did, we'd all simply be happy, and consultants wouldn't make money writing inspirational memos and selling Happiness courses.
The catch? We're status-crazy little monkeys; for social animals, climbing the ladder is the key to having more offspring. There's also the gotcha that what we're good at, and what we want to be good at, are so often different things. It's in our nature to be dissatisfied.
The dissatisfaction is rooted in not having what we want. As Robert Schenck points out on Ingrimayne, there are two ways to solve the problem of scarcity: the utopian approach, which assumes abundance, and the way of the Buddha, which is to eliminate want. Westerners seem incurable utopians, especially Americans, and especially Americans in the IT industry (some keep betting on Moore's Law, and others assume that free software for all will solve all problems). I'm too cynical to be a utopian, and too unenlightened to be a Buddhist.
Which takes us back to sleep, exercise and enjoying the moment. Oh yes, and sex.