|David Muir, Flickr|
Note: The questions raised in this post mostly apply to people whose basic needs are met, like a roof over their head, enough food to eat, and access to reasonable health care, and who have a choice when it comes to money and work.
Time to answer the sempiternal question: does money bring happiness? Wouldn't it be nice to know, so we can decide once and for all if the rat race is worth it or not?
Once your basic needs are met... is it worth it to work hard and as much as possible, in order to keep making as much money as possible? Even if that means sacrificing other things?
Corollary questions: Do we all have to work full-time? Do we really need all those luxuries we take for granted, to be happy? What would happen if we worked less and lived with less? What would happen if we worked more and lived with more?
Why do we keep hearing about successful CEOs who quit lucrative jobs to start a small handmade soap venture (that barely pays the bills)? Why do we read about professionals who decide to devote a good chunk of their work to pro bono (non paying) cases? Why do those people seem happier after than before?
Why, on the other hand, do so many of us keep making choices that favor money over other priorities? And why do we think we "have to"?
For you readers I have been combing through the data on that topic.
We've heard it time and again: money does not buy happiness. This hypothesis states that once you're past the poverty threshold (i.e. you don't have to worry about fulfilling your basic needs), and assuming you're not living beyond your means (debt is a big source of stress and an obstacle to happiness), an increase in income will NOT bring a significant improvement in your levels of happiness. Some studies indeed show that past a certain income ($75,000 for example, but some studies come up with a lower threshold), more money does not increase happiness levels (more details here).
I like this hypothesis, but what if it that discourse was more of a propaganda? What if that was a huge lie told to the masses in order to pacify them, just like the caste system of India provides a reason for the stark inequalities? After all, if money DID buy happiness, and if the less fortunate came to know it, we could probably expect a revolution! Interestingly, some studies tend to show that increases in income (even past the $75,000 point) continue to yield increases in happiness levels.
Who are we to believe?
Well, based on my readings, money is not a one-way ticket to happiness... but it's not to be demonized either. As you might have heard, money does not buy happiness... but it helps.
According to Happiness for Dummies, by W. Doyle Gentry, PhD, money does buy some things that help with happiness, like freedom ( freedom of choice, freedom from some stress - although wealth often comes with other types of stress) and support (e.g. a coach, a therapist, etc.) Some other things that money buys, like comfort, excitement and abundance, are in no way an absolute source of happiness. Why is that? Because of a number of characteristics of human nature. Namely:
- The hedonic treadmill effect (it's the change - for the better - that makes us happy, not the absolute level of what we have);
- Relative deprivation (we make comparisons with those who have more, which makes us unhappy no matter how much we have... because there will always be someone who has more);
- Escalating needs (no matter how much we have, we keep needing more, and more, and more, to be satisfied).
Another book that provides useful (and empirical) data on the relationship between happiness and money is The Myths of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD. The entire book (and her other writings, for that matter) is fascinating, but for this topic I particularly recommend chapters 6 and 7. There is too much interesting information in those chapters for me to sum it up in one post, but what it boils down to is what we've said before: money is not a one-way ticket to happiness. In some ways it does help, but in others it does not make a difference, and sometimes it could even be a nuisance: "Because wealth allows people to experience the best that life has to offer, it can even reduce their capacity to savor life's small pleasures".
One of the most interesting conclusions Lyubomirsky comes to is that no matter how much money you have, you should spend it on "experiences rather than possessions".
My environmentally-friendly mind finds this idea appealing because consuming less things should mean putting less pressure on the planet. Even if you do have the money for something, should you really buy it if it's not a true need, knowing that every time you buy (with the exception of buying second-hand, maybe), you - indirectly - pollute?
When D and I bought our house, we chose one that was smaller than what the bank was willing to let us buy. First because we did not want to run the risk of becoming "house poor", but I also like to think that it has made our ecological footprint smaller. In the same vein, one of my friends was recently asked the following question by her daughter: "Mom, do we buy second hand because we're poor?" My friend aptly replied "No, we buy second hand because we're smart." (For the record, they are not poor.)
Another reason I like the idea of spending on experiences (doing activities, taking classes, etc.) rather than "stuff" is because it feeds you from the inside, not the outside. No matter what happens, you will always have the memories, and they will keep nourishing you (and your relationships, if you shared the experience with other people).
Based on research on happiness triggers, Lyubomirsky also advises to spend money:
- On need-satisfying activities (i.e. learning, improving, celebrating, helping, as opposed to "flaunting our looks, power and status");
- On others, not yourself;
- To give you time (e.g. "by reducing our work hours or paying others to perform time-consuming chores").
That last advice brings us back to actively choosing to work less/make less money. Have you ever considered making that choice?
Finally, Lyubomirsky recommends that we let ourselves linger. Anticipation might indeed be one of the best parts of a good thing. This is not something you experience when you are caught in an impulsive shopping frenzy!
In the end, working hard and a lot might be fine if you love what you do and don't feel you are sacrificing other, more important things. (Being rich, yes... but not at any cost!) Making a lot of dough might be fine as long as you know how to use said dough, and as long as your life doesn't revolve around it; more specifically, as long as you don't rely on it to make you happy.
No matter where you are financially, if you live above the poverty threshold and your basic needs are met, you ought to ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I sacrificing for the sake of money?
- Do I really need that much money?
- Do I really need more money than what I have right now?
- What would I need more money for?
- Would that make me happier, really?
- Why do I think more money is the solution, as opposed to other alternatives?
- Am I willing to put the time and effort and the sacrifices it takes to significantly increase my wealth?
- Once I get to my goal, will I really feel satisfied, once and for all?
Yes, money IS good, and its pursuit is legitimate... but it has to stay in its place: money is to be used as a means, not an end... and its pursuit should not replace other, more important endeavors!
Stay tuned! In the next post, we will go beyond money and discuss why, wealthy or not, living with less "stuff" could be good for you.