Those stinky rich people

Are the rich happy? The only way to answer this is to look at some data


Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Stinky rich. Filthy rich. Ever wondered where that phrase came from? When did money become so dirty? A Google search tells me that it came from “filthy lucre” in 16th century English writing, where the idea was to separate legit money from money acquired by dishonest means. I think that’s wrong. The term, I think, came out of middle-class angst at those who managed to get there. I have been a part of many middle-India conversations about money. Most of them about the dirty, filthy, no-morals rich, and us middle-class people and values. It is usually a case of sour grapes rather than any real aversion to the rich life. Given half a chance, most people bemoaning the low-life rich would happily swap their chartered buses for chartered flights.

Everybody wants more money. Those who know they will never make it big take comfort in the moral high ground that not being rich gives you socially. They may be dirty rich, but are they happy? Sade kol to peace of mind hega, nai Chopra saab (at least we have peace of mind, don’t we)? Who is happy and does money really get you happiness? Since I’m not filthy rich, I cannot comment on how happy the really rich are. But here’s a thought—all us non-super-rich are not that happy either. I’m a hopeless eavesdropper on public-private conversations. The old unclejis and auntijis in the park in the morning, Metro talk, airports, coffee shops, office chatter, lift and escalator chatter—there are lots of places to plug into people. The old women are complaining about the unfeeling kids. Old men are cribbing about Arvind Kejriwal (seriously!), younger women are traumatized by their moms-in-law. The only happy people I see are young couples who seem to be in the first rosy period of romance. Don’t worry, kids, real life awaits just saat pheras down. So, no. Not happy. At least not in public places. Maybe they are deliriously happy when they get home—but it doesn’t look like it.

Are the rich happy? The only way to answer this is to look at some data. Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman, who carries the crown for getting economics back on track as a “human” social science rather than mathematical formulae, studied how money affects happiness. In a 2010 paper titled High Income Improves Evaluation Of Life But Not Emotional Well-being. Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton found that incomes below an annual $75,000 (purchasing power parity will make that about Rs13 lakh a year in India) cause unhappiness. They found that “emotional well-being (measured by questions about emotional experiences yesterday) and life evaluation (measured by Cantril’s Self-Anchoring Scale) have different correlates. Income and education are more closely related to life evaluation, but health, care giving, loneliness, and smoking are relatively stronger predictors of daily emotions.” They found that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.

If we agree that the very rich (and that will involve adding a few zeros behind that Rs13 lakh number) need not be happier than middle India simply because they have more money, how should we think about money? Money is an enabler. It opens the doors of choices that not having money denies you. But we need to choose our doors. Does the door lead to personal gratification in terms of what we buy, where we live, how we dress, what we eat, what assets we own and how we celebrate? Is that all that money leads to or is there more? Money itself does not care what you spend it on. There is a lot of value judgement, morality and social messaging around money and its use.

Middle India likes to believe that it is virtuous to be not very rich and looks down on obvious displays of large houses, cars, jewellery and the good life, but maybe we need to introspect—for a really poor person, our middle-class life is also the high life, and he may see us as we see the really rich celebs we love to hate. Look in the mirror: do we not upgrade our one room flats for larger spaces as we grow in income and wealth?

So how should we think about money? There is a money mantra that I find useful to fix my own thoughts about money. This comes from a small, but power packed, book titled The Mother by Sri Aurobindo. On the topic of money, he writes, “You must neither turn with an ascetic shrinking from the money power; the means it gives and the objects it brings, nor cherish a rajasic attachment to them or a spirit of enslaving self-indulgence in their gratifications.... All wealth belongs to the Divine and those who hold it are trustees, not possessors. It is with them today, tomorrow it may be elsewhere....”

Monika Halan works in the area of consumer protection in finance. She is consulting editor, Mint, consultant, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy , member of the Financial Redress Agency Task Force and on the board of the Financial Planning Standards Board India.

READ MORE