In recent discussions of how money relates to happiness, a controversial issue has been whether people are happier when they have more money or not. On the one hand, Richard Easterlin, the author of “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” argues no link between economic growth and happiness. From this perspective, he claims that anyone can attain happiness regardless of their socioeconomic status, and he also points out that happiness will not increase beyond their satiation point. That is, once individuals meet their financial requirements, more money will not make them happier.
On the other hand, however, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers countered Easterlin’s argument with their paper, “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox,” and argue that a link between economic growth and happiness does exist, and claim that individuals’ happiness will continue to increase beyond their satiation point. On the surface, both views seem valid but contradict one another.
Yet, the question remains, does more money bring more happiness? The story of the animated movie “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” will illustrate the opposing views of Easterlin versus Stevenson and Wolfers. The film is about a poor couple who discovers a mystical girl in a forest and takes it upon themselves to raise her like a princess. Sanuki, her dad, relocates the family from their rural hometown to the capital, as he believes economic growth brings happiness. However, complications arise when Princess wishes to return to her rural town against her dad’s beliefs. In sum, the issue is whether economic growth, its corresponding outcomes, such as education, status, and material possessions, bring cumulative happiness.
This paper argues that the characters in the film “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” illustrate that money does have a relationship with happiness, but they also demonstrate the concept of satiation. First, I will show how the characters believe that money is a synonym for happiness. Then, I will show how with more money, their happiness increases.
Lastly, I will demonstrate how their degree of happiness correlates to their degree of satiation. This issue is important because individuals must identify, understand, and acknowledge that economic growth connects to happiness but also satiation. Otherwise, individuals will not achieve life satisfaction, live redundant lives, waste their existence and the existence of others.
In 1974, in his article “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at the University of South California, addresses the widespread belief that economic growth is directly related to subjective well-being , which measures and rates individuals’ happiness and reports on their feelings (92). For instance, Easterlin questions people’s general belief that money and happiness are connected; in his essay, he asks, "Is there evidence that economic growth is positively associated with social welfare, i.e., human happiness'? (90). Most people believe money will make them happier because, in their minds, money enables them to have more things.
This widespread belief resonates well with the results of the surveys and the analyzed datasets; as Easterlin puts it, “hopes relating to economic matters appear to be foremost in the minds of Americans, but do not exhaust the content of happiness” (94), which means that people immediately relate and equate that more money equals more happiness.
Conversely, when additional datasets include information from developed and undeveloped international countries, the connection between money and happiness is less clear. Easterlin writes, “What is perhaps most striking is that the personal happiness ratings for 10 of the 14 countries lie virtually within half a point of the mid-point” (106). He means that the gap is minimal when comparing developed and undeveloped countries and their corresponding gross domestic product. For example, in comparing the United States with Cuba, both countries are very close on happiness regardless of their GDP. Easterlin’s meticulous research and findings, became at the time, an academic revelation known as the Easterlin’s paradox.
Following the same inquisitive spirit, in 2008, Betsey Stevenson, the Chief Economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, and Justin Wolfers, a doctor in Economics and Harvard University alumni, began their research with an expectation to understand Easterlin’s findings and conclusions. Nevertheless, complications arise when Stevenson and Wolfers reassess Easterlin's paradox and challenge his conclusions against new rich datasets.
For example, Easterlin uses datasets from early cross-country surveys conducted during the period since World War II dated from 1946 to 1965 (90), and Stevenson and Wolfers use and analyze new and rich data sets containing recent data on a broader array of countries dating from 1981 to 2004 (1).
They initiate their endeavours by stating that, “The ‘Easterlin paradox’ suggests that there is no link between a society’s economic development and its average level of happiness” (1) as if it nullifies any effort or motivation from individuals to ameliorate their income or financial situation.
Therefore, Stevenson and Wolfers ask, “If economic growth does little to improve social welfare, then it should not be a primary goal of government policy” (2), which means that should be no reason for an individual or their government to improve their financial situation, for them or their citizens because financial gains won’t have any positive effect in their happiness.
Conversely, in their 2008 Brookings paper, “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox,” Stevenson and Wolfers systematically examine old and new datasets and find the connection between money and happiness already existed in the data from Easterlin, but it was dismissed as noisy data. Stevenson and Wolfers write, “Subjective well-being data are scarce, and the existing data are noisy…these factors explain why past researchers have not found a link between economic growth and growth in happiness” (4). This is especially relevant because Stevenson and Wolfers do not accept Easterlin’s conclusion. On the contrary, they bring newer data spanning more years, questioning, and challenging Easterlin’s paradox.
Now that we understand the position of both opposing views let's look at how this works in the life of the film's characters and actions in their search for happiness. Sanuki, the father, believes that economic growth is directly connected to happiness and announces to Ona, his wife, that they must relocate to the capital and give Princess, their daughter, access to more money and happiness.
However, Ona does not see any connection between money and happiness, or let alone, any reason to leave her rural townhome and peaceful life. Like the earlier example in which the government and its policies are responsible for improving the welfare of its citizens; similarly, Sanuki and Ona are also responsible for improving her daughter's welfare and happiness. As foster parents, they must make a choice. Hence, at their humble home, Ona sits down on the floor, quietly folding the dresses that Sanuki brought from the forest.
While Sanuki watches Ona do the house chores, he starts the debate by telling her, “I realized what heaven wishes to be done…to give Princess a way of life that is appropriate to these robes” (25:00). But Ona, surprised by his claim, stops folding the dresses. In disbelief, she questions him, “What heaven wishes to be done?” (25:20). And she looks at Sanuki, waiting for a thoughtful answer.
However, without much thought, Sanuki abruptly replies, “Out here, [Princess] she’ll always be just a country girl” (25:31), which means that she will not amount to much at the rural town. Ona, agnostic to relocate, dismisses Sanuki’s comments as she does not see any reason or connection in which money will make her daughter happier than what she already is, so she hesitantly tells Sanuki, “I don’t know about this” (25:45) and looks away in disbelief. But time and again, Sanuki insists that money increases happiness and, shortly after, relocates Ona and Princess to the capital.
This animated scene represents the actual debate between Easterlin versus Stevenson and Wolfers. Some individuals will firmly acknowledge the connection between money and happiness, but some others will not.
Furthermore, the following scene illustrates how each character's happiness increases as they move forward with their new life at the capital, along with the perks of having a mansion, clothes, and a multitude of servants.
For simplicity, I will acknowledge happiness every time the characters express or show they have positive feelings and emotions. For instance, Sanuki affirms that building a mansion in the capital will make Princess happy because she will meet noble people. He tells Ona, “In the capital, living with nobles as a real princess, she’ll have the opportunity to meet other nobility. Then, I believe she’ll be happy” (25:36).
Sanuki recognizes the connection between economic growth and happiness. Therefore, on the first day at their mansion, he gives Princess the gift of new clothes, and with a tone of importance, he tells Princess, “All these robes are yours, your highness” (35:00).
Princess, as a result, expresses an increase of positive feelings and emotions towards the robes. She dances around the room wearing her new colourful robes with a smile. As she laughs in joy, she eloquently tells her parents, “[these robes] smell so good, are beautiful…like falling rainbows” (35:27). And, a piece of emotional piano music plays in the film background, yet her parents joyfully watch her. Ona quietly tells Sanuki, “She is having a great time. She seems to like them” (35:14).
Ona acknowledges that Princess is happy and that relocating to the capital was the right thing for her daughter’s happiness. The positive expression, feeling, and emotions of Sanuki, Princess, and Ona confirm that money equates to happiness.
Moreover, their new home is large with spacious rooms, high ceilings, gardens, bridges, ponds with fish, and equipped with the service personnel to maintain the daily activities, chores, and a highly educated private tutor. Princess is elated, and she runs and discovers the ins and outs of her new home. She is overwhelmed with happiness and tells her parents with ecstasy, “This mansion is ours?...This is fantastic” (35:30).
This scene illustrates the connection between economic growth and happiness, in which Princess’ happiness exponentially increases every time their economic growth increases. For example, she relocates to the capital, wears new colourful robes, and lives in her new home–a mansion.
Princess embraces her new life and devotes herself to her new tutor's noble teachings and training. This scene is important because it supports the argument of Stevenson and Wolfers, in which the evidence between economic growth and happiness existed all along and only needed to be discovered, to be found.
According to Stevenson and Wolfers, they present sufficient evidence to answer the question, “Does more money bring more happiness?” However, Easterlin points out that individuals are not happier beyond their satiation point. He suggests that once individuals are financially satisfied, their happiness will not increase with more money.
For example, if a person states they need a certain amount of money to be happy, then any extra financial reward will not increase their state of happiness. In other words, satiation refers to being satisfied and signifies that an individual reaches a point of satisfaction in which their income level is sufficient to attain and maintain happiness.
Therefore, any additional increase in their economic growth will not necessarily increase their satisfaction.
The satiation point is a controversial issue in the debate over whether more money increases an individual’s happiness or not. On the one hand, Easterlin argues that once individuals reach the satiation point, they will not increase their happiness. From this perspective, he genuinely asks, “Are richer countries happier?” (Easterlin 104).
With evidence from the datasets, he rightfully points out that developed countries are not necessarily happier than developed countries, as he writes, “The happiness differences between rich and poor countries that one might expect on the basis of the within country differences by economic status are not borne out by the international data” (Easterlin 106-107), which means that the datasets do not prove evidence that developed countries are happier than emerging countries.
On the other hand, however, Stevenson and Wolfers argue that the satiation point is nonexistent and demote it to a theory that plays no role in an individual’s happiness. In their own words, “In some cases the lack of evidence of a clear linear relationship between GDP per capita and happiness led to theories of a satiation point” (7). In their view, there is not enough information to confirm there is a satiation point and dismiss it as a theory.
To put it briefly, they add to their claim, “We thus find no evidence of a satiation point” (23). In sum, the issue is whether there is evidence the satiation point exists–or not, if it exists, per Easterlin’s argument, an individual's happiness will not increase linearly along with their economic growth. But if it does not exist, per Stevenson and Wolfers' argument, individuals’ happiness will constantly grow as their economic growth increases.
The differing stances if the satiation point exists–or not–are also illustrated in the characters in the film between the Sanuki and Princess Kaguya. On the one hand, Sanuki shows no evidence of satiation as he constantly aspires to reach higher levels of nobility for himself and his family.
On the other hand, Princess shows evidence of satiation, as she feels overwhelmed, unhappy and escapes to her rural hometown. Consider this, from the beginning of the film, Sanuki is the character who frequently wants to attain more and more.
First, Sanuki finds the little mystical girl and calls her a “Beautiful little princess” (02:58), as if he was destined to nobility himself. Then, he builds a mansion in the capital and uproots his family. Shortly after, he organizes a banquet to celebrate the taking of her daughter’s fine name of Princess Kaguya.
And indeed, the exaggerated celebration brings hundreds of guests who eat, drink, and dance for a long time. The narrator in the movie says, “Princess Kaguya’s naming banquet went on for three days and three nights” (50:22). Even after finding Princess, building a mansion, relocating to the capital, and a prolonged banquet, Sanuki still calls out to the five noble princes to marry her daughter.
Sanuki demonstrates that the satiation point does not exist, as he firmly believes the capital, mansion, celebration, and marriage lead to more happiness.
In contrast, Princess Kaguya is satiated and proves everyone has a different satiation level. For instance, she is happy in her rural town surrounded by nature and friends. Once she is relocated to the capital by her father, her happiness increases in her new home, and increases again with her new clothes, and again when she learns under her private tutor.
However, when she wants to invite her rural friends to the banquet and celebrate her new name, her father furiously opposes it because he does not want to mix the rich with the poor. Moreover, in this scene, Princess Kaguya reaches her satiation point, as she needs to decide what happiness means for her.
In the meantime, she retreats to the mansion’s garden and asks her mom, “Mom, would you give a part of the garden to me”? (43:39), in which the garden represents the connection between nature and her rural town. Her mom replies, “yes, of course, if it makes you happy” (44:00). Princess Kaguya shows satiation, as she does not need any more money, clothes, or education to be happier.
Hence, the banquet on her behalf ends in exacerbation, and Princess Kaguya dramatically escapes to her rural hometown. This scene is important because it illustrates how each character has different satiation levels. For some, like Sanuki, their satiation will seem endless as they look for material possessions to bring happiness. However, like Princess, others are happy with the simplicity of life.
In conclusion, the opposing views of Easterlin versus Stevenson and Wolfers represent an ongoing debate that spans over 30 years and remains unresolved. The movie “The Tale of Princess Kaguya" demonstrates that both views can be true. Even though the satiation point correlates to happiness, it is not standard for all individuals.
Everyone has a personal satiation point that determines their level of satisfaction. Though I concede that people can be happy without money or material possessions, I still maintain that economic growth provides more options that lead to various opportunities.
For example, Stevenson and Wolfer’s argument validates new levels of happiness that perhaps an individual never thought before, as Princess Kaguya says, “All who live in the earth experience [happiness] in different shades” (02:08:07). Although some might object that money or material possessions are not transcendental.
I would reply that money and material possessions can be transformed into transcendental purposes with economic growth. The issue that money and happiness are connected is important because individuals must identify, understand, and acknowledge how their economic growth translates and contributes to their life satisfaction.
At their own pace, individuals must discover and expand their satiation point to maximize their happiness and the happiness of others.
Easterlin, Richard. “Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence.” In P. A. David & W. R. Melvin (Eds.). Nations and households in economic growth (pp. 89-125), Academic Press, New York, and London, 1974.
Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox.” 2008, https://doi.org/10.3386/w14282.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Directed by Isao Takanawa, performance by Aki Sakura, Kengo Mora, Studio Ghibli, 2013.