I’ve read a lot about the subject that strikes me as incomplete, and I feel like I need to get my own views down on (virtual) paper.
So…brace yourself for a long post.
Americans are loaded with indulgences like big-screen TVs and extra-virgin olive oil; at the same time, we struggle to be happy. A paradox? Nope. Despite worries like international conflict, climate change, and trans fats, we enjoy an extraordinary degree of affluence and security. This prosperity allows us to turn our attention to more transcendent matters—to yearn for lives not just of material comfort, but of meaning, balance, and joy.
This isn’t just true of the United States. As countries become richer, studies show, citizens become less focused on physical and economic security, and more concerned with goals like happiness and self-realization.
I wrote about money in my first book, Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide, so I’ve grappled with the mysterious element of money before.
Gertrude Stein’s observation frequently floats through my mind: “Everyone has to make up their mind if money is money or money isn’t money and sooner or later they always do decide that money is money.”
Money satisfies basic material needs. It’s a way to keep score, to win security, and to earn recognition. It symbolizes status and success. It can bring comfort and a sense of identity. It can be renounced, sacrificed, or dedicated. It’s a means and an end. It creates power in relationships and in the world. It can bring change. It often stands for the things that we feel are lacking—if only we had the money, we’d be adventurous, or thin, or cultured, or respected, or generous. It’s a symbol of everything we dream of earning.
I’ve been trying hard to clarify my thinking about money and happiness. I was skeptical of much of what I read.
In particular, I kept reading the argument, “Money can’t buy happiness,” but it certainly seems that, whatever any economist or social scientist might claim, people act pretty convinced about the significance of money. It’s not without its benefits, and the opposite case, though frequently made, has never proved widely persuasive.
I wanted to look carefully at these arguments being made about the irrelevance of money to happiness.
For example, I repeatedly encountered the assertion that, because in the last three decades, Americans’ average per capita income has more than doubled (accounting for inflation), and yet the level of happiness hasn’t budge much, therefore, money doesn’t buy happiness.
But drawing that conclusion from those statistics doesn’t make sense.
First, during that same time period, many aspects of American society changed—not just buying power. Research shows that Americans have a third fewer intimate friends than they had two decades ago; and a larger number of people can only confide in family members. Because having close relationships has been shown to be a key to happiness, that drop surely affected happiness.
Lots of other things changed, too. The health of millions of Americans was compromised, as the obesity rate skyrocketed. Across the board—in all age groups, all income and education levels, and male and female alike—the obesity rate has risen dramatically. Maybe that change affected happiness levels.
And over the last few decades, the rate of violent crime and property crime has dropped sharply, but without a corresponding rise in happiness levels. Should we conclude that people are no better off with less crime, because happiness levels didn’t budge?
That was one problem I saw with that argument. Also, if we want to compare periods of relative wealth, why make a comparison between thirty years ago and today—other than the convenience of data? Why not make the comparison to the Middle Ages? Or a century ago? The fact is, people aren’t made deliriously happy by the luxuries of salt and cinnamon, or electricity and running water, or cell phones or the Internet, because they come to accept these once-luxury goods as part of ordinary existence. People become accustomed to a rising standard of living, and that standard does not, in itself, act as an enormous source of happiness. As prosperity increases, longed-for luxuries turn into barely-noticed basics.
Furthermore, in fact, studies show that people in wealthier countries do report being happier than people in poorer countries, and within a given society, richer people, on average, are indeed happier than poorer people.
Within the United States, according to one study, 49% of people with an annual family income of more than $100,000 said they were “very happy,” in contrast to only 24% of those with an annual family income of less than $30,000. (Now, it’s also true that there may be some reverse correlation: happy people become earn more money because they’re more appealing to other people and because their happiness helps them succeed.)
People in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. Also, it turns out, while the absolute level of wealth matters to people, relative ranking also matters. And relative ranking isn’t affected when an entire society grows more prosperous.
People take the measure of their circumstances relative to the people around them and their own previous experiences.
For instance, one study shows that people measure themselves against their age-peers, and their wealth relative to their age-peers matters more than their absolute wealth. Along the same lines, research shows that people who live in neighborhoods with richer people tend to be less happy than those in neighborhoods where neighbors make about as much money as they do. A study of workers in different industries showed that their job satisfaction was less tied to their salaries than to how their salaries compared to their co-workers’ salaries. Absolute dollar figures do matter, but comparison matters a lot.
People understand quite well that relative money matters: a majority of people said they’d rather earn $50,000 where others earned $25,000, rather than earn $100,000 where others made $250,000.
My mother grew up feeling quite well-to-do in the little Nebraska town of North Platte, because her father had a highly coveted union job as an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad. On the other hand, a friend told me he felt poor growing up in New York City, because he lived on Fifth Avenue above 96th Street.
Now, I’m not arguing that people OUGHT to feel this way – that they should evaluate their own experience according to what other people have, or that they should be happier when they have more money. But the truth is, most people DO. And in the field of happiness, as in all endeavors, it’s important to understand the facts, even when you want to change them.
So am I arguing that “Money can buy happiness”?
The answer: absolutely not. Money, alone, can’t buy happiness.
But, as a follow-up, am I arguing that, “Can money help buy happiness”?
The answer: it depends.
I think the happiness experts make a big mistake when they assume that money affects everyone the same way, or that looking at statistical averages tells you a lot about each individual’s case.
One popular argument is that while happiness levels increase dramatically as poor countries become wealthier, once income levels reach a certain threshold in advanced industrial societies—I’ve seen the number $15,000 thrown out—there’s practically no relationship between a person’s happiness level and income level. This assertion seems preposterous to me.
That statistical average doesn’t mean that a particular individual in that country might not be made happier by more money—depending on that individual’s circumstances. And indeed, studies show that within any particular country, people with more money do tend to be happier than those with less.
After long consideration, I decided that three factors shape the significance of money to individuals:
* It depends on what kind of person you are. Money means different things to different people. You might love to collect modern art, or you might love to rent old movies. You might have six children and ailing, dependent parents, or you might have no children and robust parents.
* 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 a dog. You might splurge on a new dining room table, or you might splurge on a personal trainer.
* 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.
Developing this three-factor test gave me pleasant memories of law school, and it was helpful, but it was complex. I was looking for a more cogent way to convey the relationship between money and happiness.
Then I had what I’ll call the Epiphany of the Back Spasm. One afternoon, I picked up the Little Girl the wrong way, and the next morning, I woke up in agony. I was beside myself with pain. I couldn’t sit for long, I had a hard time typing, I had trouble sleeping, and of course, I couldn’t stop picking up the Little Girl, so I kept re-aggravating the injury.
My father-in-law, who has long suffered from back problems, kept urging me to go to his physical therapist. I kept insisting, “I’m sure my back will improve on its own.”
Then, one night, as I struggled painfully to turn over in bed, I thought, “Remember my own Secret of Adulthood: It’s okay to ask for help! He says physical therapy works; why am I resisting?”
I made an appointment, and two days and two visits later, I was 100% better. It felt like a miracle. And one day after my pain was gone, I took my pain-free existence for granted again.
I realized an analogy: money doesn’t buy happiness the way good health doesn’t buy happiness.
When money or health is a problem, you think about it all the time; when it’s not a problem, you don’t think much about it. Both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness. One of the greatest luxuries that money and health provide is the freedom from having to think about them.
Being healthy doesn’t guarantee happiness. Lots of healthy people are very unhappy. Many of them squander their health, or use it in harmful ways. They take it for granted. They don’t spend any time thinking about it or feeling grateful for it. In fact, they might even be better off with some physical limitation that would prevent them from making destructive choices. Ditto, money.
I remember once, in law school, the Big Man and I went on vacation with some friends. One guy was the friend of a friend, whom we didn’t know well except to know that he was renowned for his wild, reckless antics. I was relieved when he broke his ankle the first morning (doing something stupid) and was stuck on crutches. I’m positive that this injury kept him from doing a lot of crazy, dangerous stunts that might have caused great unhappiness.
But just because good health doesn’t guarantee happiness doesn’t meant that good health doesn’t matter to happiness. Ditto, money.
The First Splendid Truth holds that to think about happiness, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
Money is most important for happiness in the “feeling bad” category. People’s biggest worries include financial anxiety, health concerns, job insecurity, and having to do tiring and boring chores. Spent correctly, money can go a long way to solving these problems.
I’ve written before about how money, SPENT WISELY, can help buy happiness in the “feeling good,” “feeling right,” and “atmosphere of growth” categories – because it can help support the aspects of life that build happiness: social bonds, energy, having fun, doing good.
I welcome any responses to this. I’m still thinking through the issue.
New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.