Can money make you happy?
You’re not sure.
Everyone says it doesn’t, but a whole lot of people spend their lives pursuing it.
People say you shouldn’t strive for more, yet they also hold up rich people as examples of success.
All this leaves you confused. “Why can’t money buy happiness?” you wonder.
You’re sure if you had a bit more money, you’d be happier. After all, your dreams require it.
How else will you retire early? Cruise around the world? Convert the garage into a pottery workshop? Or pay for your daughter’s wedding?
You’re sure you’ll be happy once you’ve enough money to reach your goals.
Yet this isn’t what decades of scientific study has shown.
Instead, a large body of research paints a different picture.
Money has some power to bring happiness into our lives, but its effects are limited.
Your wellbeing is made of many parts. Money is just one of them.
The truth is, money can’t buy happiness.
There's a danger that if you think it does, you’ll neglect other essential areas in your life.
That’s because happiness can come from many sources, and money is only one.
When you achieve a healthy balance of many happiness-generating activities, you’ll invite harmony into your life.
You’ll also feel happy now rather than waiting for it to come sometime in the future.
It’s worth it.
Money can’t buy happiness, but…
Are you feeling a little sceptical?
I know I was until I immersed myself in the research.
It’s hard to believe that money doesn’t influence happiness much.
But before we look at what money doesn’t buy, let’s look at what it does get you.
1. Money Helps You Survive
You need money, at least in the modern world.
Without it, you’d have to bargain to get what you need. But making goods yourself and swapping them is inefficient.
It’s hard to escape needing at least some money.
A Buddhist monk renouncing worldly wealth and living in a communal temple must have some interaction with money, even if it’s for repairs to the temple roof. He or she hasn’t completely escaped the world, even if their participation in the market economy is minimal.
Unless you’re a self-sufficient hunter-gather, you need some money to survive.
People with no money live precariously. They have little security and are often at the mercy of events beyond their control.
In the modern world, high costs for rent and food mean surviving isn’t always easy.
Many of us are one paycheck away from financial ruin.
Money helps you survive in a market economy.
2. Money Gives You Choices
The more money you have, the more options you have, and the more control you have over your life.
Have you ever met a group of impoverished young children, possibly while you were abroad? They were laughing and skipping and so full of joy and contentment.
For a moment it seemed clear to you that money can’t buy happiness. Yet you’re also aware how vulnerable these young children are.
The simple buildings they live in could topple in a natural disaster. Their schools may not provide them with an adequate education. Their job prospects are minimal.
Without money, their options are limited.
Disaster could strike at any time, and they have little means to counter it.
With money, you’ve more options. You’re less constrained by circumstances outside of your control.
3. Money Gives You Status
The world looks up to rich people.
It wasn’t always this way. In the past, society awarded status to other things, like devotion to God, for example.
In today’s world, though, many people chase money because they want respect. That’s why so many people also continue to accumulate wealth far beyond what they need.
They keep striving even though they have more money than five generations could spend.
In the modern world, there’s a direct correlation between wealth and status. The more money you have, the more you can bask in society’s glow.
People will assume you’re smart and savvy. You’ll be able to claim you’re brilliant, a secret genius, and worth adoration. You’ll be able to look down on others.
Everyone will assume you must be happy, and you’ll be able to enjoy the envy of others.
The penalty for low status is often a lack of self-respect. It’s a societally induced inferiority complex.
4. Money Buys You Freedom
Most of us must work for a living. We exchange our time for money. But some people have accumulated so much money that they don’t need to work anymore.
They’ve achieved financial independence and the freedom that goes with that. If they choose to, they’ll never have to work again.
There is a whole community called FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) that dedicate themselves to the goal of quitting their job and living on their savings.
The FIRE community cut back spending to a minimum and invest all the surplus.
Money can buy you freedom from having to work for other people. You can pick and choose your projects rather than having to sell your labour.
So money definitely has its uses. But it also has limits.
20 Things Money Can’t Buy
We’ve seen that money can get you survival, freedom, status and choice.
So you might be thinking to yourself, “See, I told you so. Who said money can’t buy happiness?”
But one of the most consistent findings over the last few decades of happiness research is that money only buys happiness up to a certain point.
Once we meet our need for basic survival, money seems to have little influence.
The finding is often referred to as the Easterlin paradox after economist Richard Easterlin. In the 1970s, his research demonstrated that, although the American economy had grown consistently over the previous decades, average happiness remained unchanged.
In the 1940s, approximately one-third of all homes did not have running water, an indoor toilet, or a bath/shower, and more than half had no central heating. Education opportunities were limited. Only a few young people finished more than a couple of years of schooling. Only 5% made it to college. Attending university was virtually unheard of.
Yet Americans were as happy then as they are today.
Strange, isn’t it?
The reason seems to be because money is not the only contributor to happiness. Many life-habits and attitudes are more important.
These habits and attitudes contribute to happiness just as much as money does, if not more so.
In fact, money may make people unhappy because the dogged pursuit of wealth means they ignore these other components of happiness.
1. Money Can’t Buy Life
I’m sure you’ve heard, “you can’t take it with you when you go.” Yet many people hold onto possessions and material wealth as a defence against the idea of death.
Studies show that reminding people of their mortality increases their attraction to fame and material wealth. Indeed, part of the reason we feel a tingle of pleasure when we meet someone famous is that for a few moments we feel immortal.
Charles’s Allen Gilbert's painting, “All is Vanity,” wonderfully illustrates how vain many of our pursuits are in the face of death. Look carefully at the picture, and you’ll see it is both a young woman at a dressing table staring into a mirror and the image of a skull.
Many of us subconsciously believe money can protect us from dying. Unfortunately, this is not so.
When we face death, we’re all equal. Rich or not.
2. Money Doesn’t Buy You Novelty
Humans adapt to new environments exceptionally quickly.
That’s a good thing for survival. The flip side is that whatever our circumstances, rich or poor, we get used to them pretty quickly.
Psychologists refer to this as the “hedonic treadmill.”
Since the novelty of almost anything wears off after a time, we find it very hard to be satisfied. We’re always pursuing something new. It’s like we’re running and running, but not getting anywhere.
What does this mean for you?
Well, after purchasing a larger house or a new car, or getting a pay increase, you’ll quickly adapt. Several scientific studies show that winning the lottery or getting a job promotion will only give you temporary pleasure.
The effects on your happiness of all those things won’t be significant.
No sooner will you have obtained them, then the happiness you feel will begin to wear off.
3. Money Doesn’t Make You Wise
You can have a lot of money, but little sense.
Do you know someone wealthy who isn’t the brightest person around? I’ve met a few rich people who seemed pretty stupid. They were selfish and immature and didn’t seem very happy.
Wisdom comes from education and experience.
It’s about how you make use of the information you have gained throughout your life.
It comes from deep reflection and the ability to think past yourself. It comes from the ability to take stock of your existence as a whole. Wisdom is also about how you use your learning and experience for the good of yourself and others.
Many religions hold that their wisest people did not have any money – Jesus in Christianity, The Prophet in Islam, The Buddha in Buddhism and Confucius in China.
Worth bearing in mind.
4. Money Doesn’t Make You Generous
Generosity is crucial to happiness.
Being kind and generous leads you to perceive others more positively and more charitably.
You put yourself into others’ shoes and empathise with their situation. Generosity fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have. Some of the most generous people in the world—Gandhi and Mother Teresa, for example—have had little money of their own
Wealth can, in fact, increase your distance from others. It can make it harder to empathise with their plight.
Many rich people are snobs, for example. They take a small part of a person, such as which school they went to or the neighbourhood they live in, and apply judgment to the whole of a person’s character.
Wealthy people can become so entrenched in the stories of how great they are that they become less generous and sympathetic to others.
Without realising it, they isolate themselves and sabotage their own happiness.
5. Money Doesn’t Equal Experiences
Did you know that experiences contribute more to happiness than objects do?
It might be tempting to think that money will buy you lots of great experiences. With cash, for example, you could sail on a yacht around the world, pay for luxury spas and fancy meals. Heck, one Japanese billionaire has even paid for a trip to the moon.
Yet great experiences don’t have to cost a lot.
Positive, memorable experiences allow you to strengthen your relationships and enjoy novelty. They also allow you to develop new identities that relate to these experiences. You can raise a pet, volunteer at your local soup kitchen, or climb a local mountain.
Activities like these will add more to your long-term happiness than a fancy car, large house, or luxury yacht trip.
6. Money Doesn’t Make You Grateful
Gratitude is also essential to happiness.; it’s the art of being happy with what you already have.
Money can’t make you grateful. Gratitude is an inside job.
As a matter of fact, all the evidence suggests that more money makes us less grateful. The more money you have, the more you want.
Take this study of American college graduates, for example. Those with annual salaries under £30,000 a year claim that £50,000 would thrill them. Yet those who earn £100,000 say they need £250,000 to be satisfied.
Rising wealth often leads to rising expectations.
Even millionaires aren’t satisfied as they compare themselves to billionaires.
But it doesn’t take much to be grateful. It’s a habit you can learn without needing money.
You can be grateful for health, blue skies, and nature. You can be thankful for the taste of oranges, a roof over your head and the fact that your local store sells sweet potatoes.
There is much to be grateful for.
7. Money Doesn’t Give You Good Health
Money can get you proper medical care, but it doesn’t automatically lead to good health.
Good health is partly our genetic lottery (inherited diseases or susceptibility to infections), partly our luck (accidents, illness) and partly also how we take care of ourselves. Money doesn’t buy you these things.
Money can help you live in a secure neighbourhood, put a roof over your head, and let you buy nutritious food, but beyond that, it doesn’t do much.
It can’t force you to prioritise your health.
Often the opposite is the case. The relentless pursuit of money means some people sacrifice their wellbeing through stress, anxiety or lack of exercise.
On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that shows peace, calmness and exercise all contribute to happiness. And did you notice? They’re all free!
8. Money Doesn’t Make You Content
Contentment means feeling at ease with your body, mind and situation.
Some of the most content people in the world seem to be those who have turned their backs on pursuing money, rather than those who have lots of it.
For example, the media have dubbed Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, the happiest man in the world. He was once a participant in a happiness study during which he showed much higher than average happiness levels.
Buddhism and other Eastern Religions teach that you find contentment by renouncing worldly desires.
The less you want, the less dissatisfied you are.
While we can’t all be Buddhist monks, you can take some time to reflect on whether you can achieve contentment now. I’m trying to learn to write well, for example. I want to pass on some of my counselling education. Yet I try not to focus on the outcome (writing well) and to enjoy the process (learning to write). I try to be content now and not to worry about the outcome too much.
How could you be content if your dreams don’t come true?
9. Money Doesn’t Make You Satisfied
As long as you believe more money will make you happy, you’ll never find satisfaction.
Many people fall into this trap. You might think, “If I have a bigger house, then my relationship with my husband will be ok.”
“If I am a millionaire, then I’ll be happy.”
“Once I have saved up enough for a new car, then I’ll be satisfied.”
But the satisfaction never comes. That’s because when you believe that money will solve your problems, you put off doing tasks and activities that could bring you happiness now rather than at some distant point.
If your marriage is on the rocks, then more money won’t help—but counselling or learning about the fundamentals of a good relationship will.
Similarly, it’s not a bigger house you need. If you’re not happy with a three-bed apartment, then you’re unlikely to be pleased with a 5-bed.
10. Money Doesn’t Give You Enjoyment
Having money doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy life.
I’ve met a few people who had money but who weren’t able to get much enjoyment out of day-to-day life.
They are obsessed about making more money. All their life seemed to revolve around it.
A former friend of mine spent eighty percent of our time together talking about money. The subtext was all about how great he was. Yet on parting, he confessed that all he wanted to do was leave everything behind. The pressure of always making money left him anxious and exhausted.
“I want to ‘smell the roses’,” he said. I replied that I did that every day.
Time is as valuable as money. If you haven’t got the headspace to relax and enjoy your day-to-day life, what’s the point of all your riches?
11. Money Doesn’t Make You Sane
Good mental health is as challenging for the rich as it is for the poor. As a counsellor, I can assure you that wealthy people are not immune to mental health problems.
Sometimes the stress and anxiety of chasing money is the main contributor to their poor mental health.
Quite often, the pursuit of money is a distraction from other different fears. One client of mine was afraid of failure and poverty. He was continuously anxious that his investments would disappear despite having made (and safely invested) more than most people could imagine.
Easing his anxiety involved dealing with childhood trauma and the reason why he used his money to avoid internal pain.
To maintain good mental health, you need counselling or self-improvement. It requires a commitment to learn about yourself, expose your vulnerabilities and face down your demons. Money can’t help you do any of these things.
12. Money Doesn’t Give You a Higher Purpose
Happiness is often related to a sense that we’ve meaningful things in our lives or that we find our life as a whole significant.
Many people dedicate their lives to careers that serve others and yet which don’t earn much money. My sister is a nurse in palliative (near death) care, for example.
Billions of people raise a family despite the costs and burdens of doing so, and many men and women give up successful careers to spend more time with their children.
In doing so, they are in their quiet, determined way rejecting the norm that says money buys happiness and choosing other more meaningful life endeavours.
What’s your life purpose?
13. Money Doesn’t Buy Friendship
Another reason why money doesn’t buy happiness is that friendships are priceless.
Money may get you popularity, but it won’t necessarily get you genuine friends. It can often get you a lot of shallow hangers-on and makes understanding who your real friends are more complicated.
For some rich people, not knowing who genuinely likes them and who is only interested in them because of their wealth can become a significant source of anxiety and distress.
Real friends are the ones who like you, whether you have $100,000 in the bank or are still paying off your student debt.
And having good social relations and an excellent social network is an integral part of being happy.
Many poor people live in great communities, have supportive friends, and are all the better for it.
14. Money Doesn’t Buy You Peace
Money doesn’t give you a sense of connection to God or the universe.
Studies show that those who are either religious or who have some form of spiritual belief are happier than those who don’t. Both spirituality and religion require a search for a life purpose above that of the individual self.
Many religious and spiritual people feel connected to existence. If they’re religious, they see God’s will manifest in everyone. To them, we’re all God’s creatures. Spiritual people look to the stars and see we’re made of the same particles and energies as the universe.
Religious or spiritual people are happier and tend to live longer, less stressful lives than non-religious and non-spiritual people
You don’t get the same benefits if your only God is Mammon, the God of money.
15. Money Doesn’t Make You a Good Parent
Having money won’t make you a good parent; in fact, it may make some of your parenting decisions harder.
If you have enough money to be comfortable, that could ease some of your parenting stress. Finding a great school and paying for higher education may be less of a problem, but there will be other challenges too.
Teaching your children responsibility and the necessity, or even pleasure, of hard work may be difficult.
Nor does money take away parenting concerns. A survey of wealthy parents showed they believed others might stereotype their children as rich kids or trust fund babies. They wondered if their children would know if people loved them or their money.
They also worried about how their children would know their achievements were because of their skills, knowledge and talent or because of the wealth they inherited.
Being a parent is difficult, no matter how much money you have. Wealth doesn’t make it a walk in the park.
16. Money Doesn’t Give You the Best Goals
Studies show that people who set intrinsic goals are much happier.
Intrinsic goals are goals that you have thought about and decided are important to you. They allow you to grow as a person, to develop emotional maturity and to contribute to your community. Extrinsic goals are goals that society has dictated are essential.
Society sets us up for failure as it continually tells us extrinsic goals such as wealth, beauty and fame are more important. We are surrounded by these messages and find it hard to ignore them.
It may seem obvious that working toward goals that are personally involving and rewarding to you is more likely to bring you happiness than working toward goals that you have not freely chosen. Yet if you think about it, how much of your life is influenced by what other people approve or desire for you?
Making money might well be one of these extrinsic goals. On the surface, the pursuit of it makes you happy, but it doesn’t offer the same fulfilment that those dear-to-your-heart intrinsic goals might have.
17. Money Doesn’t Give You A Green Thumb
More and more evidence is showing that a connection with nature is essential to wellbeing.
Mental health problems are worse in cities than in the countryside, and people who move to green areas see a significant reduction in depression.
Even a regular walk in a park for city dwellers produces a significant improvement in mood and concentration. The effect is even more striking for those who feel depressed.
Why does nature have such a powerful effect?
Scientists don’t yet know the exact reason but many trace it back to the fact that we evolved to live in the natural world. When you’re out walking in nature, you feel a sense of awe. You realize that the world is vast and your concerns are tiny.
Money doesn’t offer nearly the same benefits.
18. Money Can’t Make You Moral
Consider this scenario from Jonathan Philips, a Harvard University scientist.
Tom has a job that makes him happy. He’s a janitor at a community college. When researchers ask what’s likeable about his career, Tom lists the opportunity to meet young female students and how easy it is to steal from the lockers. He feels he has a great racket going, and easily supplements his income by selling the stolen goods.
Is Tom happy?
Tom thinks he is and says he is, but most people, when asked, will say he is not.
Fundamentally we believe that happiness and morality go together. Morality is another source of happiness that money does not buy
There’s even a lot of evidence that money corrupts. Numerous accounts of CEO’s such as Jeffery Skilling of Enron indicate that if anything money and make being moral harder.
19. Money Can’t Buy You Love
As many high-profile divorce cases can attest, money doesn’t give you a free ticket to a good relationship.
Researchers have found that there are several pillars to a good marriage, including understanding your partner, sharing life goals and dreams and being able to manage conflict situations.
None of the pillars involved money.
Couples often argue about money, and lack of funds can cause a lot of friction in a relationship, but studies show that while many people think more money would solve their problems, it often doesn’t.
There are steps that you can take to improve your relationship no matter how much money you make. The research on love suggests that none of the love languages we speak relate to material wealth. Even gift-giving does not involve money. Gifts can be as simple as a homemade drawing, or a heart-shaped stone picked from the local park.
As one of the Beatles songs goes, “money can’t buy me love”.
20. Money Can’t Get You A Good Life
It is sometimes humbling to read the biographies of those who have lived a life of dedicated service to others.
As they reflect on their lives, you can tell that they have found it rewarding, despite the modest income they earned.
As Sue Black recounts in her book, All That Remains, her work to write a textbook on juvenile osteology (bone development) net no real financial reward. Certainly not when she takes the hours of labour into account. Yet writing it was deeply rewarding.
Borne out of her experiences identifying the dead bodies in Kosovo after the war there, her knowledge made a significant contribution to her field. Her book has made it easier for forensic anthropologists across the world to identify the remains of children. Giving their families needed closure.
Sue’s life is rich not in material things but experiences of gratitude and servitude.
Want to Be Happier? Put Money In Its Place
You’re wondering about money’s place in your life.
Everyone says money can’t buy happiness, but you have a niggling doubt. If it is true, why does everyone seem to chase it?
Now you have your answer.
Money is a tool, and it does play a critical role in our lives. Abject poverty can be soul-destroying, and life is a struggle to survive if you have no money to buy nutritious food, essential medical care and a roof over your head.
Once you have met these basics, though, money will not affect you much. Studies indeed show that wealthy people are on average slightly happier than the non-wealthy, but the effect is small.
The reason seems to be that there are many things that money can’t buy.
That fact is the key reason why money can’t buy happiness.
Money does not affect other life circumstances and often has adverse effects. It makes you desire more, it makes it difficult not to spoil your children, and it increases your distance from ordinary, less wealthy people.
And it does nothing to increase gratitude, contentment and the state of your social relations. These things are inside jobs. They’re brought about by changes in attitude and a willingness to put others before yourself. They require humility and personal strength to fight against the tide of material excess.
If you’re struggling to develop a sensible attitude to money, think of the steps you can take to bring balance into your life.
Make sure you meet your basic needs and, if you can, put some money aside for emergencies.
Beyond that, think of all the other activities that can bring happiness into your life.
There are lots of things that money can’t buy. Make sure you have those in your life, and you’re sure to be happy and content.
Which non-monetary source of happiness are you going to prioritize first?
- MedicineNet: https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main
- American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases
- HuffPost: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/research-proves-that-money-cant-buy-happiness
- Time: https://time.com/5071079/happiness-income/