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Happiness and Our Ethical Values

By James M. Wilsterman, None

“Are MBAs so concerned with increasing their personal wealth that they ignore ethics and their responsibilities to society?” So asks the introduction to the MBA Oath, a code of conduct written and publicized by a group of second-year students at Harvard Business School this spring. By becoming a signatory, MBAs pledge, among other noble things, to “act with utmost integrity and pursue [their] work in an ethical manner.” As of yesterday, about 40 percent of the approximately 900 members in the HBS Class of 2009 had signed the online oath. But must MBAs really chose between greed and virtue?

Fortunately, there may not be such a real trade-off between self-interest and an ethical life. Recently, empirical studies have helped us better understand the important relationship between living an ethical life and living a happy life. And while it may be easy enough to believe that unethical behavior—defined by egoism and greed—could be a clear path to happiness, recent research suggests otherwise.

According to psychologists James Konow and Joseph Earley, income really only provides happiness at the lower levels of the earnings spectrum—when paying for necessities. So MBAs and others who egoistically seek to maximize income as a path to happiness are likely taking the wrong approach. Unethical or immoral behavior as a means to increase income, therefore, is probably not the right way to attain overall happiness either.

This finding has many potential psychological explanations. For example, it could be that individuals are mainly concerned with their relative wealth in comparison to others. If incomes grow consistently across the socioeconomic distribution, then we would not expect to see happiness grow much at all, save for those in the lowest earning bracket. Reinforcing the effect, as individuals gain wealth they often change social groups—and begin interacting with other higher earning individuals. Thus, as we gain wealth, the people we choose to compare ourselves against may also become wealthier, leading to little change in relative position.

There can also be a gap between our ambitions and our achievements. Problems arise when our aspirations grow faster than our accomplishments. As we gain wealth at some rate, our aspirations may grow at an even quicker rate, leaving us constantly unsatisfied. People who, out of self-interest or greed, put their own aspirations above the needs of others, may again be taking the wrong approach to happiness.

This finding has been described as the “Hedonistic Paradox”, which states that those who seek happiness for their own benefit often find themselves disappointed, whereas those who seek to improve the well-being of others may have a greater likelihood of being happy themselves. Research shows that those who are altruistic and selfless often have higher levels of happiness. Psychologists Ed Diener and Pelin Kesebir write, “Happiness appears to bring out the best in humans, making them more social, more cooperative, and even more ethical.” These findings are consistent across multiple studies and environments. Moreover, according to Earley and Konow, “some tasks, such as helping others, appear capable of sustaining happiness at a higher average level than other goals, like the pursuit of material wealth.”

Unfortunately, direct empirical analysis linking the role of ethical and moral values to happiness has been very limited. More typical, and still highly interesting, has been the study of how pro-social behavior, such as altruism, or other specific components of an ethical life, influence happiness. Voluntarism, for example, is a specific pro-social behavior that provides a good measure of altruism. In fact, volunteer work is one of the most practiced and important pro-social activities across the globe. Of adults in the U.S., 50 percent participate in volunteer activities, doing the amount of labor in a year of what would otherwise amount to 5 million full-time jobs. While there are many reasons to volunteer, evidence from recent research suggests that volunteering actually causes higher, sustained happiness levels in individuals, even when controlling for other factors.

All in all, this research suggests that while there may be trade-offs between ethical behavior and the pursuit of wealth, morality no longer seems so difficult when we change the goal to be the pursuit of happiness instead. Perhaps the best way to encourage ethical behavior among MBAs is not to frame “acting in an ethical manner” as a sacrifice—in which wealth is exchanged for virtue—but rather as an opportunity for gain through happiness. Ethical behavior (just like unethical behavior) can be born of self-interest. For everyone’s benefit, publicizing these findings from positive psychology might be just as important as oaths.


James M. Wilsterman ’10, a Crimson editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Lowell House.

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