Fortune...Chuck Feeney

Paul Hopkins: Money and happiness in the time of the pandemic

In the same week that one punter walked away with the €5,395,798 lottery jackpot, Chuck Feeney, the Irish American who pioneered duty-free shopping, achieved his lifetime ambition by giving away his €6.9bn fortune while still alive.

For the past 38 years Feeney has been making 'secret' endowments to charities and universities globally, with the goal of “striving for zero … to give it all away”. Now at 89 he has achieved that goal. The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation he set up in secret in 1982 and transferred almost all of his wealth to, has finally run out of money. Feeney, who is in poor health, says he is very satisfied with “completing this on my watch”. His message for other members of the super-rich, who may have pledged to give away part of their fortunes but only after they die, is: “Try it, you’ll like it.”

The philanthropist says he hopes more billionaires will follow suit and use their money to help address the world’s big problems. “Wealth brings responsibility,” he says. “People must define themselves, or feel a responsibility to use some of their assets to improve the lives of their fellow humans, or else create intractable problems for future generations.”

Would winning the lottery make us any happier? Is Chuck Feeney at 89 any happier for having given away his vast fortune?

Researchers regularly present diverse findings related to the connection between income and happiness. It’s not so much the level of income that directly determines your level of happiness, but rather the ways in which you are able to direct your income to purposes that are likely to bring you happiness. In short, it is the ability to afford the things that bring personal satisfaction that really matters.

These “things” may, indeed, be “things” but they may also include the ability to afford experiential purchases (holidays, green fees, surf lessons in Lahinch, whatever gets your goat), payment for services (gardening, house cleaning, etc.) to provide you with more time to do what you prefer to do with your time, rather than having to clean the house for the umpteenth time.

Cold cash has a specific determined value in the economic world, but the emotional or practical desire for more of this commodity varies greatly among us, depending on matters like health, philosophy, our view of life itself. The pandemic too is giving us a new perspective on what really matters.

Until six months ago, Ireland’s economic boom not only made many citizens wealthier, it also saved lives, new research suggests. The country’s mortality rates have reduced dramatically since 2000, thanks to public health interventions, medical improvements and, crucially, people becoming richer, according to a new study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The study estimates there were 15,300 fewer deaths a year by 2014 attributed to economic and health improvements in Ireland over the previous 15 years.

Brendan Walsh, an ESRI research officer and co-author of the paper, says a lot of the medical improvements in Ireland, such as better drugs and technologies, were also experienced by other EU countries. “What sets us apart was we went from being a relatively poor country in Europe to being a relatively rich country in a very short period of time. We also had large improvements in education levels, female employment rates, and reductions in emigration. It’s the socio-economic equation that sets us apart.”

The pandemic will change that equation.

However, one paradox of the pandemic economy is that, even as businesses have shut down and jobs have disappeared, households have on average been saving more money than usual. Now that the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) is being reduced from this week many people’s nest eggs will likely reduce, making daily life for many even more precarious.

A lot of the money that well-off people aren’t spending right now — with the hospitality industry and holidays abroad at a virtual standstill — is money that lower-paid people would normally receive as income. Many industries that employ lower-wage workers, such as restaurants and hotels, are ones that make life more 'comfortable' for higher-income people. So when those people’s spending, as such, dries up, those lower-wage workers’ pay dries up too.

And please don't get me started on the pay rise for politicians. Nor the banks.

For many, right now, the lack of money can play havoc with their health. Not to mention their happiness.

Read Paul Hopkins' column every week first in the Meath Chronicle
More from this Topic