Money and Happiness. Literally the intersection of my two favourite topics!
There is a saying that goes:
“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy books and that’s kind of the same thing.”
Or, according to Google, a whole host of other things…
Perhaps it’s the lack of English words at our disposal, or maybe it’s just that the word happy is completely overused, but none of these things can actually make us happy.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE books, and tea, and cake and ALL the things. But the first thing I want to clarify, is that pleasure and happiness are two different things. So, let me first define what I mean by happiness.
To me, happiness is about having a sense of contentment with yourself and your life and feeling physically and emotionally secure. It’s about having a sense of purpose, fulfilment and being able to navigate the natural ups and downs of life with resilience.
Your definition of happiness may be different, and that’s ok. But what I want you to understand is that while momentary pleasure is great, it’s not the same as having an overall feeling of satisfaction with your life.
Now that I’ve clarified that, back to the question at hand. Can money buy you happiness?
The Case for Yes
The reality for most of us is that we live in a capitalist society, where our very existence is dependent on money. As Khalid says “You gotta pay to live, and even dyin’ ain’t free”.
Ok, so maybe I am the only one obsessed with Khalid, but he has a point. Even our basic needs, like food and shelter, cost money. Not being able to meet these needs can not only be a risk to our physical security and health but also create a lot of stress and anxiety. So much so that studies have shown that the effect of poverty can be so profound that it even lowers people’s IQ.
If happiness is dependent on being physically and emotionally secure, it’s clear that a certain level of money definitely can buy you happiness.
The Case for No
You would think then that anyone who has enough money to have their basic needs met, must be happy.
If that were true, then the wealthy wouldn’t need therapists. And as it turns out, having money, especially a lot of it, can actually be the cause of people’s unhappiness. Wealth can be the source of much stress and anxiety – concerns about how to spend it, fear of losing it and insecurity over other people’s opinions, for example, can be very real and in some cases debilitating.
Professor Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale University, has spent much of her career exploring what does make people happy. I can highly recommend her Podcast The Happiness Lab. In it, she identifies things like community and connection, generosity, spending time in nature, rituals, positive thinking and resilience as some of the most important sources of happiness. None of these needs to involve money. Even generosity does not necessarily rely on having money, as it can refer to giving your time, energy and attention to others.
Many people in developing countries report higher levels of happiness than developed countries. This is despite living in conditions that many in the Western world would consider unacceptable. Often these people attribute their social lives as being paramount. Their relationship with their friends and family is what brings them the most happiness.
Based on these data points, then it’s clear that money can’t buy you happiness.
My point of view
Personally, I don’t believe that our happiness needs to be dependent on money. However, money does give us choices. And that gives us the freedom to express ourselves and live our lives in ways that best align with who we truly are, which in turn does make us happy.
Having money can give us more time to be able to spend with people we love. It can afford us a comfortable home and healthy food. We can buy experiences that open our minds and bring us closer to the people we love. It can be spent on books, courses, therapy and coaching which can vastly help us to develop ourselves and improve our emotional mastery – including our relationship with money.
What if it’s both true and not true that money can buy happiness? What if there were ways that you could both find happiness without money and also make money to improve your happiness? I think there is.
The problem with the scientific studies of money and happiness is that they try and find one answer that applies to everyone. I often say personal finance needs to be personal, but of course, personal development also needs to be personal too. That’s why it’s so important to understand who you are and what makes you happy. Once you know these things you can work towards them, whether they require money or not.