Can money actually buy you happiness?
You all probably remember the sentence “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it right” from that old commercial. What made that simple sentence so memorable yet so controversial was that it offered a simple solution to the common question “Can money make me happy?”. We all know that there must be a connection between money and happiness, or we wouldn’t struggle with things such as saving and investing money; but still it appears that people who do have money, are not always happy and often commit suicide: the relationship between money and joy is a little bit more complicated. Fortunately, over the past years, scientists and psychologists studied this phenomenon and tried to offer an explanation. It seems that your money can help you find happiness, as long as you know your boundaries.
Let’s start from this point: we are never satisfied, we always want more. We alway think “if I get that, I’ll be happier” but in the end, it’s not like that. Once you have fulfilled basic human needs, earning a lot more money doesn’t equal a lot more happiness. However, the rise in living standards of the past 50 years, hasn’t made Americans happier. Here’s three reasons why:
- We overestimate how much pleasure we’ll get from a new thing. Buying something new makes us feel happier in the short term, but we quickly adjust to our new wealth. A state of running in place that experts call “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation”. The day you start dreaming about getting a new car, you daydream about the day you’ll buy the car, rather than daydreaming about the car itself. And yes, when you’ll finally own that pair of keys, what you’ll feel will be satisfaction. But one month, one year later, when that car will no longer be what you dream of, you’ll get used to it.
- With more money comes more stress. The high salary you earn with your high-paying job doesn’t always pay back for your stress. For example, commute: study after study proves what we all already know, that even just 30 minutes we pass in that hell we call public transport, can wear us down. Not to mention all the time spent on work stuff even when you’re back home.
- We endlessly compare ourselves to another person. Whether it’s an old friend, a coworker, a neighbour, we envy them. These are individuals that the economist Erzo Luttmer calls “similar others”. “You have to think I could have been that person,” Luttmer says.
These characteristics (our tendencies to grow bored with new things, the endless research of something new and the envy we feel towards others) seem to be rooted in human traits. That’s probably what made prehistoric man move out of his drafty cave and began building the civilization we now inhabit. But you probably don’t have to worry about survival, so you can loosen up for that hedonic treadmill. Question is, how?
If you still want to use the money you earn wisely, you need to understand where your happiness comes from. It’s well known that friends and family are a mighty elixir: a large-scale surveys by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC), for example, have found that those with five or more close friends are 50% more likely to describe themselves as “very happy” than those with smaller social circles. So you could use part of your income for that: throw a party, go on a lunch or whatever you like, but invest in your friendships.
Your significant other has even a higher impact on your happiness than your friends, indeed those who have a happy and committed relationship are more likely to be happy than those who don’t, and another study of the NORC confirms that. Still, that is not as easy as it might look: finding your life partner is something you should do meticulously and carefully. While it’s true that marriage might bring you joy, divorce brings misery to everyone and those who stick out are the unhappiest of all. Kids are another important aspect of happiness. Tom Gilovich, Cornell University psychologist, noticed that if you observe parents raising kids they definitely don’t look happy but exhausted. However, if you ask them, they’ll tell you that having kids is one of the most enjoyable things they do with their lives.
We always tend to think about things we would buy rather than all the experiences we could do with our money. But the truth is that things that don’t last create the most lasting happiness. Just try and compare the pleasure you got from the last thing you bought for yourself and the experiences you spent money on: your last vacation, a night out. A possible explanation could be that the emotions you got from an experience blossom as you recall that memory. Indeed our brain can edit memories, remembering only the glorious parts of them. So next time you think that arranging a vacation is more trouble than it’s worth, keep in mind the delayed impact it will have.
But who can decide what an experience is and what is not? People define what is and isn’t an experience differently and maybe that’s the key to happiness. Gilovich suspects that the people who are happiest are those who are best at extracting experiences out of everything they spend money on. It could be dance lessons, a good book or new running shoes.
Furthermore, applying yourself to something hard can give you joy. We’re addicted to challenges, and we’re often far happier while working toward a goal than after we reach it. Sometimes happiness is not the finish line, it’s the path.
HAPPINESS TAKES AN EFFORT
When asked what gives them moment-to-moment joy, people often respond with watching tv on the couch. While that could help you recharge batteries, to be truly happy, you need more in your life than passive pleasures.
You need to find activities that help you get in a state of flow. Even better if founded in your job: two birds with one stone.
Not long ago, researchers thought that happiness was a setting point and that trying to get happier was useless. Fortunately, experts are increasingly coming to view happiness as a talent, not an inborn trait.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, has found that happy people don’t waste time worrying about unpleasant things and they aren’t bothered by the success of others. They dare not to compare, thus short-circuiting invidious social comparisons that are just a loss of time.
That’s not the only effort you should make.
Try and count your blessings, literally. Keep a journal, write things down, make a list: researchers found that those who actively tried to cultivate feelings of gratitude ended up feeling happier that those who didn’t.
And if you can’t change your mindset, at least try to limit yourself: when you go shopping you unleash your inner primitive man and you desire to buy everything you see. Block these thoughts and count how many times during the next month you’ll think “I really need to buy that thing”.
If you didn’t think about it, you didn’t need it. Then move on, happily.