We are supposed to already know the answer to the question: "Can money buy happiness?"
From a very young age, we learn through one fable or another that for all the things you can buy with money, the feeling of happiness is not one of them. It’s a lovely sentiment. It tries to teach people that the human capacity for joy is one of the greatest, often untapped, resources we possess. With the right kind of friends, you can be happy doing just about anything, even something you hate. It’s poetic, and true in the way that such aphorisms often are. But is it actually true? Can money buy happiness?
Despite it’s brevity, the idea that money can’t buy happiness is a complex lesson to drive home. Not because it’s incorrect. Yes, you can find happiness anywhere if you try. However, you don’t have to try all that hard if you’ve got money. But, as we all know, the pursuit of wealth is such that, even once you acquire it, it’s difficult to stop chasing even more. If we were able to rank the most unhappy people in the world, surely some of them would be very, very wealthy. So, let’s really dig into the question “can money buy happiness?” and see if we can find ourselves an answer.
Can Money Buy Happiness? No, Of Course It Can’t.
Even though we live in an age of technological miracles, we still can’t go to a website or a store to pay someone in exchange for “happiness.” To literally buy “happiness” is a concept so nonsensical it seems more at home in a Lewis Carroll book than being discussed here. The question we should ask ourselves isn’t “can money buy happiness?” but rather would we even want it to? Frankly, it sounds like the sort of concept one might find in some dystopian sci-fi noir story.
No, rather money buys things. However, those things can directly affect our feelings. You can buy drugs or other substances that are designed to simulate happiness, from mind-altering drugs to the sugary chemical rush after an energy drink. But it goes further than that. We always feel something after we spend money. When you buy tickets for that dream vacation in Central America you’ve always wanted or the fast car you’ve always seen yourself driving, you feel something. In most cases, you feel happy or, at least, excited. Can money buy happiness? No. But can spending money make you happy? Oh, hell yeah.
Can Money Buy Happiness? No, But It Can Create the Conditions for It.
As noted above, the idea that money can’t buy happiness is usually first instilled in us through a story. This makes sense. Artists often start their professional lives lacking in nothing but the things money can buy. So, the idea that you can find joy in things money can’t buy, such as making the leap to living your dream as a writer or filmmaker, is a natural one. However, along with the artists, we also have the number-crunchers. To answer the question “can money buy happiness?” we can find out using the scientific method.
A book published by TIME magazine called The Science of Happiness cites numerous studies that find that people’s happiness levels are related to their income. That relationship, however, may not exactly be what you think. Once people cross the poverty line, their level of happiness jumps up significantly. This increase matches with income level until it reaches people who make around $75,000 per year. Yet, for those who make more than that annually, their level of happiness does not seem to correlate with their income. This suggests there is a threshold on the happiness level that mere wealth can provide. Once a person has enough money for a nice place to live, transportation, a year vacation, and so on, their happiness level becomes a much more personal thing.
Can Money Buy Happiness? No, Because Having Too Much Can Be Too Much.
Those who are fortunate enough to find themselves comfortably above that $75,000 level are in a place where their money is not a source of happiness. In fact, for many people their money can be a source of stress. Or, at the very least, how they earn their money is the source of malcontent. Take the story of Christian Hinojosa who, by the age of 21, earned a six-figure salary as an investment banker at an unnamed firm. Hinojosa worked there for five years, but soon grew tired of the high-pressure job and making money not just for himself, but also his clients and his firm. Today, he’s a Fire Captain in the Dallas Fire Department.
This is a decision not many would make. From making hundreds of thousands of dollars (with the potential to make millions) to a modest living as a civil servant who rushes into burning buildings. Still, Hinojosa said his quality of life increased a great deal, according to CBS News. Interestingly, the top of the pay scale for just a regular firefighter is close to $70,000 per year.
Professor Catherine Sanderson, Hinojosa’s undergraduate college advisor, said that Hinojosa’s choice to make less but be happier is anathema to many. “There is this assumption always that, if I just had a little bit more, I just had a little bit more, then I will reach this happiness," she said to CBS News.
To put it another way, in the worlds of the late hip-hop legend the Notorious B.I.G.: “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”
Can Money Buy Happiness? No, Not If You Can’t Relax and Spend It.
Entrepreneurs or other business-minded folks want to make tons of money, unquestionably. However, especially for people already with means, there are easy ways to make it. No, starting a business or committing yourself to an established company is about more than money. In this way, these folks are like the artists (but in better suits) because their happiness, their satisfaction comes from the work. However, the work doesn’t always give one satisfaction, especially when things go wrong.
Mark Zuckerberg took a website he made as mean-spirited goof in his Harvard dorm room and turned into one of the largest social networks in the world. Yet, even with all of his billions of dollars, he found himself and his company at the center of firestorm. The role Facebook played in the 2016 political election is still hotly debated, and a data firm manipulated Facebook to get information on millions of users. Zuckerberg ended up in front of Congress facing grilling from both grandstanding legislators and those genuinely concerned for Americans’ privacy. No amount of money could make that a happy experience.
Can Money Buy Happiness? No, Not If You Don’t Spend It Right.
So, if you’re asking “can money buy happiness?” and are a person of means, chances are you aren’t spending your money correctly. Sure, you probably pay your bills and even splurge for the random expensive item, like luxury sneakers or a motorized surfboard. However, simply paying your debts and buying “things” is not a great way to spend your way to happiness. John Rampton, founder of productivity and online payment apps, blogged about the things he spends his money on that make him happy, such as art, charity, and “experiences.”
For the latter, you are not “buying happiness” but rather buying a ticket to something that will do it and will provide you with great memories forever. It might be a big concert for your favorite band that you’ve never seen play live. It might be a trip to Belize or some other paradise you’ve never visited. It might even be something as simple as accessorizing your car audio, so that whenever you go somewhere the experience continues. In fact, spending your money on things that provide you with more free time can be an experience in itself. By paying someone to clean your home or landscape the yard gives you the time to have these experiences or even just to sit around and do nothing.
Can Money Buy Happiness? No, So Try Just Giving It Away.
Without trying to sound like a hacky Philosophy 101 professor, what really is “happiness?” To put a finer point on it, what is it about happiness that makes people think it’s associated with amassing stuff? There are other ways to be happy, as the traditional answer to “can money buy happiness” suggests. Think about the richest folks in American history, like Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett. All of them amassed larger fortunes than they could ever spend on themselves. And all of them have promised to give away most of their wealth. Whether out of altruism or a desire for their names to live on after they die, there is no question their money bought happiness for generations of people.
Philanthropy doesn’t just work for the mega-rich. Donating to charity can be good for everyone. “[W]hen researchers assess happiness before and after people spend an annual bonus, people report greater happiness when they spend the bonus money on others or donate it to charity than when they spend it on themselves,” Associate Professor of Psychology for the University of Nebraska Sarah Gervais wrote in 2015. If you find yourself surrounded by fine things and despair, giving it way to those in need might just satisfy a need in yourself you never knew you had.
Can Money Buy Happiness: No, Because Humans Don’t Know What They Want?
The question “can money buy happiness?” is really just another version of that question we all ask ourselves from time-to-time: “will I ever be happy?” If you put 1,000 people in a room and asked each of them what would make them the happiest, you will almost certainly get 1,000 different answers. Sure, there’d be similarities. Folks want a good place to live, to have quality time with loved ones, and to have certain experiences, costly or otherwise. But the specifics? They’ll vary from person to person. In fact, what people say will make them happy, just might be what would make them miserable.
Happiness chased and happiness lived are two very different things. Often times, the chase proves to be more fruitful than actually achieving the goal. This is another lesson our artist friends try to teach us every chance they get. True or not, attaining some spiritual or personal MacGuffin can backfire on a person. If you want to get to the heart of what would make the happiest, you’ve got to look back at when you were happy. While you can’t live in the past, analyze what it was that made you happiest. A trip to Disney World won’t work if you just loved it because you were a kid, with costumed characters and overpriced character tchotchkes. However, a trip to a place filled with the things you enjoy doing as an adult with the people you love, might just be the answer.
Instead of asking “can money buy happiness?” figure out if you can be honest with yourself about what that happiness would look like.
The search for happiness is a journey of self-discovery. You have to look deep into your past, your present, and your very soul in order to find the answer. In some cases, your happiness might lie at the end of a path where you leave everything behind like Christian Hinojosa. You might want to choose a less-lucrative career, perhaps even one of service. Or, you could find that your happiness lies at the end of a path where you have just enough money to do what you want, retire early, and live a life of luxury. Although maybe you don’t care about your wealth, but instead want to build something, to leave a legacy. It’s a question to which only you have the answer, and to find it, you have to be honest with yourself.
Yet, no matter what path you choose, chances are that having a little money would make the journey that much easier. For people who struggle to save money, pay their bills, or even put food on the table, money is directly connected to their happiness. Sure, these folks know moments of joy. Human beings are amazing like that, able to find a reason to laugh or smile no matter the circumstance. Having enough money to live is crucial to not just a person’s happiness but their mental and physical health. On the other hand, when the chase for more wealth becomes like an addiction, no amount of money will make you feel better about it. Money may be a common factor in these examples, but the real way to measure happiness for yourself is to examine your quality of life.
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