Money can solve many problems, or at least make them easier. Someone
once told me, “I’ve never seen a problem that money has made worse.” With
the exception of drug addiction, he probably has a point.
But then we overreach, to make money address more than it should. It gets
pressed into service because it’s a commonly accepted social and personal
resource—it makes people feel self-sufficient.
The idea that more money will bring more happiness is one of the most
pervasive and persistent money themes in modern culture. Is there any truth to
Our relationship with money assumes that we know what money can do for
us—that we know what we’re giving and getting for money. Some things do
work this way: the more you pay, the more you get, such as a car, hotel, or
house. But not so with other things such as happiness, love, and
authenticity—which may at times even have an inverse relationship.
Research suggests that money, like Prozac, doesn’t make you happy. Both,
however, can prevent certain forms of unhappiness. Money, for example, allows us
to afford better medical care, safety, neighborhoods, gadgets, and at times, a
Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, has demonstrated that both
greater wealth and actual purchases have little permanent impact on happiness.
His research shows those events we expect to make us happy often prove less
exciting than we anticipated. The increased happiness and pleasure that we
predict might come from a raise in salary, for example, or a new gadget,
typically fall short of our expectations. And even in those cases where
financial gain does bring about a better mood, the good news doesn’t last long.
University of Illinois psychologist Dr. David Myers found that after an initial
excitement with a burst of good fortune, such as inheritance, lottery, or job
advance, people revert to their initial set point of happiness or gloom.
Consistent evidence shows that experiences (such as vacations, theater, or
dinner) make people happier than material possessions they spent money for. One
reason is that the process is more social: when you spent money on dinner with a
loved one or a vacation with family, you create an entire experience. When you
spend for a possession, you quickly grow accustomed to it and it loses the
pleasure, simply because a different neurochemical system takes over once the
purchase is made. This drop in dopamine after you buy accounts for
buyer’s remorse. (The same drop before you buy is called coming to your
Money is the legal tender of desires. We use to it measure success as well
as to try to buy happiness. We use money to communicate, to carry messages. So,
in regard to happiness, as well as many other promises of money (of course,
money doesn’t promise since it can’t speak—it doesn’t even know who owns it—we
project our desire onto it like a Rorschach ink blot), money is the cover story:
it offers you one thing, but seemingly promises another.
When we compare our inside to someone else’s outside—we think money can
bridge the differences. Money is a ceaselessly renewable promissory note for
possibility. But happiness is not a goal or reward. It’s a consequence.
We need money in order to know what can’t be purchased.
I believe it’s not possible to make a general statement on whether money makes people more or less happy. Money comes with a whole set of new elements that may have good or bad impact on our happiness, and depending on how susceptible we are to every one of them, the conclusion will go one way or the other.
I recently made an effort to provide a more comprehensive picture of what these ad- and disadvantages are. I invite you to have a look at http://www.spreadinghappiness.org/2009/08/money-how-much-should-we-strive-for-it-to-become-happy/ and tell me what you think!