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Happiness Is...

We're getting richer, but we're not getting happier.

We know Bill Gates is rich. And successful. In fact, those labels seem too mild for him. He is, quite simply, the richest man in America and the most wildly successful entrepreneur entering the 21st century. But is he happy?

If you're seeking an improved entrepreneurial existence this year, keep in mind that happiness is in no way connected to wealth. Richard Easterlin, an economic historian with the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has found that, although the gross domestic product per capita in the United States has more than doubled in the past half century, there has been absolutely no improvement in the percentage of happy people. "Even though each generation has more income than its predecessor, each generation wants more than its predecessor," says Easterlin, who points out one of our most enduring cultural beliefs is that another 10 percent to 20 percent increase in income would make each one of us perfectly happy.

According to Easterlin, who is also the author of Growth Triumphant: The Twenty-First Century in Historical Perspective (University of Michigan), there's an inherent flaw in that belief: It doesn't take into account that aspirations rise as a function of a rise in income. In other words, you'll probably be able to get what you want, but at that point, you'll probably want something else. "The more we have, the more we want," says Easterlin. "The evidence shows that's the way the world functions."

It's clearly the way the business world works, especially when you throw in that competing-with-the-Gateses factor. "Let's say you're starting a business, and you're struggling," says Easterlin. "You think `When it's a bigger business, I'm going to be able to sit back and enjoy it.' But when you get to that stage, you find out that all the other [entrepreneurs at that level] are working just as hard, living in much bigger houses and taking expensive vacations. And the result is, you don't feel rich or successful at all. People always think they're going to get happier as they progress through their careers, but the evidence doesn't bear that out."

How does a goal-oriented entrepreneur exist in this endless cycle? Not only with a goal, but with a goal that is purer. "I think it would be good if, instead of automatically getting into this material pursuit, we tried as a society to be more contemplative about what kind of world we want and what we want out of this world," says Easterlin. "It's now a largely unconscious process that we're involved in. If it were more self-conscious, if we gave thought to the way we wanted things to be, that would be desirable."

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This article was originally published in the January 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Happiness Is....

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