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

How to be happier.
March 9 2009 6:13 AM

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.

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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 toward relieving these problems.

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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 the first year, $40,000 in the second year, and $50,000 in the third year 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 total 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. (Side note: 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 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.

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.

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