Happiness Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. On Friday, I wrote about Myth No 5: A “Treat” Will Cheer You Up.

Myth No. 6: Money Can’t Buy Happiness.

Well, money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy lots of things that contribute mightily to happiness.

As the current financial downturn is making vividly clear, money contributes to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of it brings much more unhappiness than possessing it brings happiness. (Good health is the same way – it’s easy to take money or health for granted until you don’t have it anymore.) People’s biggest worries include financial anxiety, health concerns, job insecurity, and having to do tiring and boring chores. Spent right, money can go a long way to relieving these problems.

Also, if spent wisely, money can help you boost your happiness. For example, philosophers and scientists agree that having strong ties to other people is the KEY to happiness, and money can pay for a plane ticket to visit your sister, a babysitter for a date night with your sweetheart, or pizza and beer for a Super Bowl Party with friends. Novelty and challenge will make you happier, and money can pay for a trip to France, for a drawing class, for a mountain bike.

Is money essential for developing strong ties to other people or finding ways to challenge yourself? Of course not. But money can make it easier. Some of the best things in life aren’t free.

Whether rich or poor, people make choices about how they spend money, and those choices can boost happiness or undermine happiness. It’s a mistake to assume that money will affect everyone the same way. No statistical average can say how a particular individual would be affected by money—depending on that individual’s circumstances and temperament. Three factors shape the significance of money for you:

* It depends on what kind of person you are. You might want to own a horse, or you might want to own a turtle. You might have six children and ailing, dependent parents, or you might have no children and robust parents. You might love to travel or you might prefer to putter around the house.

* It depends on how you spend your money. Some purchases are more likely to contribute to your happiness than others. You might buy cocaine, or you might buy fresh produce. You might splurge on a big-screen TV, or you might splurge by going to a more convenient gym.

* It depends on how much money you have relative to the people around you, and relative to your own experience. One person’s fortune is another person’s misfortune.

The current economic climate underscores that third aspect of the money/happiness relationship: our happiness is affected by whether we have more or less than we used to have.

My First Splendid Truth holds that “To think about happiness, think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” We’re made happier by the feeling that we are learning, growing, seeing change for the better. This applies to the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional parts of our lives – and also, for most people, the financial part.

Feeling like we have less than we did – unless that’s the result of a conscious decision – can be a happiness challenge. In one striking study, people were asked whether they’d rather have a job that paid $30,000 in year one, $40,000 in year two, and $50,000 in year three, or a job that paid $60,000, then $50,000 then $40,000. In general, people preferred the first option, with its raises—despite the fact that at the end of the three years, they would have earned only $120,000 instead of $150,000.

Their decision might seem irrational, but in fact, the people who chose the first option understood the importance of growth to happiness. People are very sensitive to relative changes in their condition, for better or worse. (Sidenote: some people feel like they have more with less, so they get a feeling of growth by simplifying their lives.)

If you feel like you’re worse off now than you were two years ago, that’s an unhappy feeling. Some quick ways to make yourself feel better: count your blessings; distract yourself with something fun or interesting; find ways to assert control over your situation (even to do something as small as to clean out a closet); spend time with friends; or do something to help someone else – you can sign up to be an organ donor right this minute. You’ll feel great!

What do you think? How do you think of the relationship between money and happiness? Important, unimportant? I think this is one of the most complex and fascinating subtopics within the subject of happiness.

I love a good manifesto, and here’s a great one on Scobleizer.

If you haven’t seen my one-minute movie, The Years Are Short, you might enjoy it.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Drmcmd

    I am a naturally happy person,  a busy physician, and a mother of 2 grown children,  working weekends, answering phone calls day and night, having long office hours for the past 23 years of  my 55 year long life.  I absolutely love my job and would never trade it for anything else.   Yet, because of  the money issue, work intensity invaded my personal life, interrupted family time, led to a divorce ( my husband also a doctor and  always working weekends and late nights) and stole mothering time from me, when my children were young.  I had no time for much  leasure, travel or the  arts (which I love) or even a relaxing cup of coffee  . I am either late to my own appointments, or being forced to cancel them.    When it comes to reading- it is almost  always medical literature- to stay updated in your  field is a must, or preparation for  renewal of your specialty boards every 10 years for the rest of you life.  Most people do not realize financial struggles of physicians running their own practices  or  a time factor  that goes with it .  Had  I had enough money, I would  be able to afford  a part time job  which would allow me to recover MY own   life as a person and a mother. (The list of things I would do is too long to cite here,  since I grew up with a lot of  outdoor activities , studying classical  music , skiing , dancing and other  wonderful thing I had to give up.  And the list of new things I crave to learn and enjoy is even longer  . I remained  a happy person all along, but in my case, money would enable me to enjoy my life fully as it should  be.  

  • AlexLloyd808

    For me, money can’t necessarily make you happy but it certainly can make you unhappy if it stops you doing what you want with your life.

  • Mark Avery (aka Mr Bashful)

    Hi, Gretchen, I disagree. I believe money can’t buy happiness. You claim money can 1. prevent financial anxiety and help keep us healthy, 2. prevent us from having to do tiring and boring chores, and 3. strengthen the connections between people, by providing plane trips, babysitters, etc.

    I claim there are two types of happiness. There is the temporary happiness we get when we experience pleasure, like when we can visit someone we love, or have a date with a sweetheart, or have a pizza, or do drawing classes, or ride a mountain bike. That’s when endorphins rush to our brain to make us feel good. Our happiness soars, but after a while we return to normal. Or, if a pet dies, our happiness plummets, but after a while we return to normal.

    It’s that ‘normal bit’ which is the other type of happiness – that day-to-day feeling of wellbeing when nothing in particular is happening. It’s our default happiness. I call it our core happiness. Some people call it our ‘set point’.

    Both forms of happiness are important – life would be drab without pleasure. But there are wealthy people who have whatever pleasures they want, but if they have a weak core happiness they will still find life unsatisfying. And there are people who don’t have access to many pleasures, but with a strong core happiness find pleasure in even the little things of life.

    When you claim that having money can prevent financial anxiety, and keep us healthy, etc. you are correct. But that doesn’t mean money is raising a person’s set point (core happiness); rather, it is preventing, or alleviating, unhappiness. That’s great. That’s important. it’s helping a person return to their set point, but it’s not raising their set point. It’s not making the person happier.

    You also claim that money can prevent us from having to do tiring and boring chores. It sure does, and it’s wonderful. But again, by not doing those chores we are simply avoiding temporary unhappiness. And that’s great. But we are not increasing our core happiness, not raising our set point. We are not becoming happier.

    I will respond to your last claim in a separate comment, for fear of running out of space.

  • Mark Avery (aka Mr Bashful)

    Hi again, Gretchen,

    you claim that money can help strengthen the connections between people, which means it can buy happiness. I disagree.

    I claim that we evolved to feel connected with one another. It was evolution’s way of persuading us to live in tribes. If we lived in a tribe we were more likely to avoid succumbing to starvation or to a predator. So, we evolved a propensity to contribute to the tribe and feel valued by it, and feel connected with the people around us, and that kept us living in the tribe long enough for us to pass on our genes. So yes, feeling connected is important, and it is a significant contributor to our core happiness.

    However, we can satisfy that need to feel connected in many ways, with neighbours, friends, colleagues, the passer-by in the street. It doesn’t take much if we know how to do it. There are many people who have relations but don’t feel connected, and there are people (like me) who have no close relatives or friends, but still feel connected with humanity. To suggest that a person needs to fly to France to visit their sister to feel connected (and therefore increase their happiness) would be like suggesting that a person needs to fly to France to get a bite to eat. There are plenty of opportunities with those around us to satisfy our need to feel connected, and without the need for money.

    Yes, flying to France to visit your sister will increase your temporary happiness – it will give you pleasure – but it will not increase your core happiness, your set point. The feeling of connection you will get from visiting your sister will be pleasurable, yes, but you could satisfy that need to feel connected (the deep need to belong) by staying in your home town. Strong ties to people are great. They add considerably to our pleasure. (Which is important.) But strong ties are not necessary for core happiness; we only need to feel connected with the people we know and meet. That is sufficient. If you feel connected with humanity, strong ties are simply a bonus. If you don’t feel connected with humanity, strong ties are at best, a crutch.

    Gretchen, I think money is wonderful stuff. It’s one of the best things ever invented. It adds significantly to a person’s quality of life. It can prevent and alleviate unhappiness. But will it raise a person’s set point? Will it make a person happier? Nuh.

  • Phillip Dobson

    I am over seventy years old, have had periods of intense depression in my life, experienced success, failures, bankruptcy, and prosperity. The peaks and valleys of my life make the Himalayas look pale. I have severe arthritis, and am in pain most of the time. My knees and hips have been replaced, and my shoulders are next. My business went bankrupt three years ago, I lost everything, and I now live with my daughter. I fill my days with my grandchildren, my daughter, and my writing. I am, and have always been, happy.