The term “paradox of affluence” explains the disparity that has developed over the last 40 to 50 years in America between material well-being and psychosocial well-being. “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short. ” It also provides extensive statistical evidence that indices of material affluence and of well-being have gone in opposite directions since the 1950s. We measure affluence in dollars or by other crude material measures. A person with more is more affluent.
The affluence of a country is expressed as its gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of all goods and services produced in and by a nation. It has long been observed, though, that GDP fails to measure what truly counts for human well being. A million dollars spent on prisons and toxic waste clean-up counts as much toward GDP as a million spent on education, food, or art. Measurement of happiness may be even more complex. Some have argued that we can’t trust people to rate their own happiness—that people do in fact get happier as they get richer.
When it comes to happiness and wealth Maslow insists that the urge for self-actualization is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, but only surfaces once the more basic needs are fulfilled. Once the powerful needs for food, security, love and self-esteem are satisfied, a deep desire for creative expression and self-actualization rises to the surface. Through his “hierarchy of needs,” Maslow succeeds in combining the insights of earlier psychologists such as Freud and Skinner, who focus on the more basic human instincts, and the more upbeat work of Jung and Fromm, who insist that the desire for happiness is equally worthy of attention.
Still we must not equate wealth with value. There are things we truly value—time with family and friends, connection to community, the satisfaction of helping others, the challenge of meaningful work. These consistently and reliably bring us fulfillment and even joy. Keep these things safe from the ravages of the pursuit of affluence—from the “getting and spending”—in your own lives. And let us continue to work together as a community learning how to bring the fruits of affluence to those at the bottom of the curves.
- Baumgardner, S. R. and Crothers, M. .K. (2009). Positive psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Ch. 6 of Positive Psychology
- Easterlin, R. A. 1974. Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. In P. A. David & M. W. Reder (Eds. ), Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramovitz (pp. 89–125).