Wealth and well-being can go separate ways

Value Judgments

Your Money

September 12, 2004|By JANET KIDD STEWART

MONEY CAN buy happiness, but not always, and it pays diminishing returns.

So concludes a new analysis of wealth and well-being that calls for better national sampling of our softer side - depression, joy, contentment - in addition to, say, our consumer confidence and income.

Our productivity-focused economic model has peaked in its ability to increase the collective happiness, said Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist who, with Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the analysis of existing research for the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Increases in the American standard of living in the past five decades haven't produced a corresponding change in surveys of depression and contentment, Diener said.

Also, the study noted that some very poor nations score high on the emotional well-being scale.

Diener believes we need to figure out what's going on here. If larger surveys show deep and long-lasting effects of joblessness, for example, the Federal Reserve might set interest rate policy to allow lower tolerance for unemployment, perhaps sacrificing productivity.

"The question is, if the economic model is not leading to increases in well-being, do we change the model?" Diener said.

Of course, setting policy by the collective psyche is a daunting task made more complex as the middle class dwindles. The point where more money doesn't equate to a better life is probably different even among individuals within the classes.

Yet the researchers aren't tilting at those windmills alone. There's a growing body of evidence that, after decades of rising prosperity, we have seen the mountaintop and come up a little empty.

Look at the high-profile defections from corporate America, like Brenda Barnes' six-year hiatus to spend time with her children while they were starting school. She went from president of Pepsi-Cola North America to carpool mom to her current post as president of Sara Lee.

Even though she jumped back into the same industry, I'm guessing the experience had an effect on her outlook toward managing a giant corporation.

And think of all the refugees who jumped (or were pushed) off the corporate career ladder in the wake of the Internet stock bubble in the 1990s, the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the crisis in management confidence that began with the Enron debacle.

Or consider the rise in sales of so-called socially responsible investments that screen out companies running afoul of investors' values. Or the advertising campaigns for investment firms trying to shed their stockbroker image and become the adviser who can help you get more meaning out of the fruits of your labor.

"We're seeing a significant trend in clients bringing the issues of wealth down to the average professional couple," said Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute in San Francisco, which offers training in the psychological aspects of money to individuals and companies such as investment firms. "Their clients are asking, `How can I feel more satisfied?'"

A national magazine called Worthwhile is to make its debut next month. Aimed at 25- to 55-year-old men and women making at least $125,000 a year, its motto is "Purpose, Passion, Profit." Think Worth magazine for the affluent who work for a living.

Blending work and family responsibilities is part of the discourse, as is tracking the values-based investment world, but the two former Wall Street Journal staffers who started the magazine say their key mission is exploring our need to find fulfillment in work.

"We're on eBay at 2 in the afternoon and reading work e-mails at 10 p.m. The days when you could compartmentalize work and life are impossible now," said Kevin Salwen.

"It's impossible to feel you've lived a meaningful life if you hate your work," Salwen said.

Co-founder Anita Sharpe acknowledges that we still live in a material world, but says a significant niche of the country is having doubts about checking their values at the reception desk each morning.

"At some point the idea of having an awful job just for the money is not going to work anymore. We believe profits should be in the equation, but that other things are important too," she said.

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at yourmoney@chicagotribune.com.

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