Features
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The status trap

Money | Researchers say rising incomes have led to more worries about keeping up

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

It's a truism that more money will not make a person truly happy. Studies have shown that this applies to societies as well. Growing GDPs have bought developed nations many things over the last four decades-such as greater opportunities for the young and longer life-expectancies for the old-but they have not bought higher levels of happiness.

A team of British researchers recently sought to find out why. Their answer: Our pride and envy get in the way.

The researchers from the University of Warwick and Cardiff University analyzed data from the British Household Panel Survey between 1997 and 2004. They found that people care much more about how their incomes compare to the incomes of their peers (people of the same age or region, for instance) than about how much they make in absolute terms. In other words, a pay raise is good, but only if it is more of a raise than a neighbor received. "Earning a million pounds a year appears to be not enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn 2 million a year," said lead researcher Chris Boyce, a psychologist at the University of Warwick.

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This obsession with keeping up with, or getting ahead of, the Joneses is the opposite of the Christian profit motive famously summarized by John Wesley as "make all you can, save all you can, give all you can." It also precludes the "right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor, and all that is his" that the Westminster divines said the 10th Commandment requires.

And it has this-worldly consequences. Status anxiety may, for instance, help explain the housing bubble, as Boyce hinted at in an interview with CBC radio of Canada. "If you do have a bigger house in the neighborhood, that might encourage everyone else being dissatisfied with their houses to make their house bigger, and by doing that, they'll lessen their dissatisfaction," said Boyce. "So it's a no-win game, really. You can easily get locked into this race for status."

Echoing Ecclesiastes 5:10, Boyce said focusing on income "does seem to be a kind of zero sum game that, overall, no one can become more satisfied."

Print problems

For newspapers, 2009 was the worst year of a very bad decade. In late March the Newspaper Association of America reported that newspapers sold only $27.6 billion in ads for the year. How bad is that? It's 27 percent lower than 2008 and, in inflation-adjusted dollars, only a little more than half of the advertising revenue for newspapers in 1986.

The trend was a bit less bad in the last three months of the year as the overall economy improved-fourth-quarter ad revenue was down 24 percent from last year's fourth quarter-prompting NAA president and CEO John Sturm to say that "business conditions have begun to gradually improve." Online advertising revenue held up better but was also down 12 percent to $2.7 billion.

On a more positive note, NAA cites surveys showing that newspaper websites are web users' top source for local information online.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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