Luck, Money, and Happiness

“If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” Warren Buffett has said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work.

If you have a rich friend who keeps talking about "all my hard work and all my money that I earned", go send them the above passage from Peter Singer’s NYT magazine cover article on why people should be giving much, much more to charity. As I’ve said before, luck and circumstances are vital.

In a somewhat related piece in the December Atlantic Monthly, the wonderful Clive Crook writes enthusiastically ($) about the British documentary Seven-Up which interviewed children at age seven and then every seven years after that to see how they grew up. The filmmaker’s thesis: "Give me a child at seven, and I will give you the man." After watching the privileged children prosper materially and the unprivileged children flounder but still make it to adulthood in one piece, Crook concludes:

Does privilege early in life make it easier to prosper as an adult? Yes. Do early setbacks spoil your chances? Of course they do. The children of rich parents tend to be rich; the children of poor parents do much less well. One cannot watch these films without wanting to lean hard against the unfairness of this world. Yet one sees, also, that satisfaction in life is not the same thing as material success. Though one emerges disinclined to mold these lives to theories, one comes away suspecting that happiness, contentment, and self-respect are character traits as much as they are fruits of success. Money matters, obviously, but so do whether you are crushed by disappointment or spurred by it, sociable or solitary, restless or settled, capable or incapable of intimacy, deserving or undeserving of trust. And loneliness, maybe, is worse than poverty.

Ideally, have lots of money and a large capacity for happiness. But if you had to choose just one, these films suggest which it should be.

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