People say it all the time: Money can’t buy happiness. Do you agree? Many will readily accept that money, all by itself, will not provide a happy life. But there’s a lot more to this story.
In fact, economists and psychologists have invested tons of energy trying to crack this nut. What drives happiness in general? And how is money connected to life satisfaction? The answers they have uncovered are encouraging and confounding at the same time.
Let’s try to figure out how we can use the money we have to help us to find happiness. Here are some findings that may help guide your thinking:
We’re never satisfied
Humans are just never satisfied. We seem to think that financial peace of mind or satisfaction is just around the corner: one more raise, another promotion, etc. But when those things happen, they don’t satisfy us.
As we acquire more, we want more. This is not a character flaw. It’s human nature. And here’s the kicker: Once we meet basic needs, we continue to want more, but we get less joy from added income or possessions.
Why? For one, we overestimate the pleasure we’ll get from more. Humans are adaptable. This is an advantage during times of climate change (think ice age here), pandemics and other disasters. But our adaptability also means that when good things happen, we quickly adjust and see our circumstances as our ‘new normal’ that as soon as we get used to new purchases or higher income, our happiness reverts back to its previous level.
Also, we don’t always reason very well. Often, we believe that we’re not satisfied because we bought the wrong toy, or because we need still more money to reach our nirvana. And the cycle continues, and our drive for more intensifies.
Worse, the trade-offs we make to get to that higher income often increase stress (for example, more job responsibility or other changes that reduce quality of life). Put it together and it’s a double-whammy: more stress, plus disappointment with our accomplishments.
We’re seeking to fill a void
Another reason why money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness is because we are sometimes seeking to fill a void with purchases. The real issue may be lack of self-love or companionship, or another unmet need. Since the cure doesn’t match the ailment, we don’t feel better. No possession will remedy feelings of inadequacy or low self-worth.
We suffer from ‘comparisonitis’
Humans have an unfortunate trait that doesn’t do us any favours. We tend to compare ourselves to others. The people we work with, our neighbours, friends from university or childhood. We want to do better than others. We want to look at what they have, and feel that we have as much or more. Not because we are mean-spirited, but because we want to feel competent and successful. This is the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ phenomenon. It’s not a character flaw; it’s built into our DNA. This is one reason why our species has successfully survived over time – but boy, does it make it hard to be happy!
Few ‘investments’ that can sometimes do the trick
- How money may bring happiness. It’s unusual to achieve real and sustained happiness as a result of a new possession. And the latest research shows what we probably should already know: True happiness is mostly driven by healthy relationships with ourselves and others. But there may be some areas where money can help us become more contented with our lives.
- Experiences, especially those we share with others. Experiences create more lasting happiness because of our tendency to remember the high points of our adventures. We tend to exaggerate, in our own minds, how pleasant an experience was. There may have been difficulties, but they’re not what stand out in our recollection.
- Services that buy us more time. Any service that helps us to have more time with family and friends can be a winner. For example, a cleaning service will provide more happiness than a new car. One study showed that the happiest people are those who value time over money. Other examples of money well spent include meal services, virtual assistants, and the like.
- Buying gifts for others. We feel good about ourselves when we give, and it also helps us feel more connected to the gift recipient. So, spending money on a nice gift for someone we love is more likely to make us happy than spending that same amount of money on a new personal possession.
No matter what, only spend within your means. No possession, experience, or gift is worth the mental stress and pressure created by debt.
Develop a realistic, even conservative budget. Because although money can’t buy happiness – debt is a direct path in the other direction.
Don’t invest in experiences, services or gifts that you can’t afford! They may bring a short buzz, but the hangover isn’t worth it. Begin to sock away some savings instead, and work towards the peace that financial security brings.
Joan Senio is a mental health blogger who runs My Best Friend Adeline. She is a wife, mother, sister, daughter, godmother and aunt.