For my Analytical Writing class…
Can Money Buy Happiness?
While it’s true that happiness isn’t for sale, money is responsible for the acquisition of the things in life that make happiness possible. A warm bed, a full belly, a roof over one’s head, and a good education: these all account for the things in life that give a person a sense of wellbeing.
Money can’t buy happiness, so the saying goes. Or can it? After all, what is happiness anyway and can money – or the lack thereof – really influence its accessibility to us?
Wendy Griffin is a single mother of two boys living in Memphis, Tennessee. She has first-hand knowledge of what it’s like doing without. To her, having a little more money would certainly bring some happiness. She says, “A person who is constantly under the stress of trying to provide food, shelter, and adequate clothing, as well as basic physical security, for himself and anyone he’s responsible for, is not going to be ‘happy’ until he has the financial security to know that he can meet whatever storm may blow in (Anderson).” Insofar as money would allow her to fund the needs and wants for a good life with her boys, yes, money can buy happiness.
But in case that seemed like an easy answer to a complex situation, there’s more. She goes on to explain that there are underlying factors to whether money applied to just anyone will always result in happiness. Basic needs such as physiological and personal safety and security, social belonging and social esteem, as well as self-actualization, are not attainable by even a vast hoard of cash. And without them, inserting money into the void within will no sooner make the person happy than applying a bandage to a man with heart disease will make him well. The person must have a wholeness about them before money can even begin to bring true happiness. But when the wholeness is there, money can be the vehicle that brings about the opportunity for happiness. “Having those worries (basic needs) ‘solved’ would allow me to pursue things like booking a retreat to research and write my novel, funding some charitable endeavors that are dear to my heart, and doing some of the fun things that I’ve put off for decades because food, shelter, clothing, and transportation came first (Anderson).”
On the other side of the tracks, so to speak, is John Gerads of St. Cloud, Minnesota. John and his wife have chosen to live in a modest home well beneath their pay grade. John talks about their choice to live in contentment with “enough”. “Due to not being what we call ‘house poor’, we’ve been able to continue to build our savings, travel, and have the financial flexibility to offer our daughter experiences that we may not have been able to provide had our monthly housing obligation been larger without assuming more debt.” He says they have never regretted their choice, and, even now, they feel no desire to upgrade or upsize. “We are more than happy with our living situation. We have a small mortgage that gives us more financial flexibility with a variety of things. We’ve been able to make improvements to our home over the past few years and pay cash for all of it. No additional debt!” (Gerads)
And so, how can this be? One with too little admits that more would bring happiness, while one with more than enough can cast off the idea of excess with no regret. According to Belinda Luscombe of Time Magazine, having enough to pay the bills, plus room for a little luxury, meant that the quality of the person’s life was enhanced, not just by the addition of pleasant things, but mostly by the lack of the worry over meeting one’s needs. However, with incomes that surpassed taking care of the basics with room for a little more, the reports showed that there was no actual greater degree of happiness. “There’s your changeable, day-to-day mood: whether you’re stressed or blue or feeling emotionally sound. Then there’s the deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going — the kind of thing Tony Robbins tries to teach you. While having an income above the magic $75,000 cutoff doesn’t seem to have an impact on the former (emotional well-being), it definitely improves people’s Robbins-like life satisfaction. In other words, the more people make above $75,000, the more they feel their life is working out on the whole. But it doesn’t make them any more jovial in the mornings.” (Luscombe)
Money ceases being the determination for wellbeing once the threshold of “enough” has been passed. When the bills are paid and the belly is full, happiness is something far more subjective than “Keeping up with the Joneses”. But when one sits beneath the line of what it takes to keep the eviction notice at bay and the electricity on, suddenly, it is for want of money that severe unhappiness can occur.
Seems simple enough, right? Not hardly!
Andrew Blackman of The Wall Street Journal takes this conundrum to a whole new level. He acknowledges that wealth does indeed bring about happiness, but his slant is that how it is spent is the real deal changer. Accumulating more “stuff” isn’t where it’s at. Using money to purchase experiences is what actually gives us that sensation of satisfaction that we call happiness. “What we find is that there’s this huge misforecast,” he says. “People think that experiences are only going to provide temporary happiness, but they actually provide both more happiness and more lasting value. And yet we still keep on buying material things because they’re tangible, and we think we can keep on using them.” (Blackman)
In the same article, Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich concludes the same: “People often make a rational calculation: I have a limited amount of money, and I can either go there, or I can have this,” he says. “If I go there, it’ll be great, but it’ll be done in no time. If I buy this thing, at least I’ll always have it. That is factually true, but not psychologically true. We adapt to our material goods.” (Gilovich)
The brief thrill associated with the purchase of tangible goods is, well, brief. It comes; it goes. Once it has passed, the happiness the thing supposedly provided is dimmed or is gone altogether. It’s when you wait and wait for the latest iPhone to hit the stands. You rush out to get it thinking it will bring the feeling we think is happiness, but before two weeks is over, you’re just over it. It’s not just another phone. The thrill is gone, and it is soon taken for granted as just another fixture of life. But with experiences, life as a whole is enhanced. Horizons are broadened, relationships cultivated, and culture deepened. Weeks and months later, the same sense of happiness derived from the experience lingers and brings a smile to your face. In a bold juxtaposition, it lasts.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s work The Hobbit, we are introduced to a dwarf named Thorin Oakenshield, the son of the mighty Thrain. When his father was killed and the family fortune stolen by a fire-breathing dragon named Smaug, Thorin made it his life’s mission to slay the dragon and return his father’s fortune to his family. After a perilous journey and a treacherous fight to the death with Smaug, he eventually saw his victory. But Thorin’s greed got the better of him. His “gold lust” set in him a burning fire that was never able to be quenched by more. He willingly parted with his friends and those who aided him in battle to unfairly withhold their portion of the treasure. Shortly thereafter, on his deathbed from battle wounds, he wishes a final farewell to his friend Bilbo whom he had betrayed in order that he would not need to share the spoil with him. “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship with you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate” (258, 259).
In an age-old story, we are reminded that things can never take the place of people and that wealth is not a thing to be equated with happiness. What Thorin’s bloodthirsty greed brought, in the end, was death. Death to his friendships and eventually death to his body. Had he been satisfied with “enough”, his life and relationships would have not only been prolonged, they would have thrived. Insatiable appetite only awakens even deeper hunger. To these people, money is not a blessing but a cancer, metastasizing sickness and death through their entire being and taking their nobility and potential for good and reducing it to raw sensationalism to excite and please their vulgar taste. It is not the thing – material wealth or what can be purchased with it – that is the trouble. It is when improper priority is given to it that it becomes a delivery service of sadness rather than happiness.
In Saint Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, he utters the often-quoted words, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” He goes on to say, “which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (King James Version, 1 Tim. 6.10). Excessive attachment to material wealth does not bring with it anything that remotely resembles happiness. While it is true that we come into this world with basic needs that, when met, bring happiness, beyond the point of those needs being met, the savage thirst for more cannot bring about anything good.
And so, with such a strong dichotomy existing, what can we say to this idea that money purchases our happiness?
I think we can best say that it affords peace where the lack would mean strain. It brings adventure where the lack would mean boredom. It offers room for expansion where the lack would mean stagnation. It affords opportunity where the lack would mean the possibility of loss.
Or maybe we’re just lost in translation of terms. Happiness, a word often confused for its similar counterpart, joy, simply speaks of general wellbeing and an absence of overwhelming stress, sadness, or anxiety. Of the meaning of happiness, Rubin Khoddam of the University of Southern California says this: “Research in the field of positive psychology and happiness often define a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride, and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger. Happiness has also been said to relate to life satisfaction, appreciation of life, moments of pleasure, but overall, it has to do with the positive experience of emotions.” (2015)
And so, we see that happiness speaks of circumstantial contentment and pleasantness, where joy speaks of something much more consequential, far-reaching, and weighty.
Joy isn’t a thing we can put into our carts and ring up at the register. Not literally and not metaphorically. But happiness might be. The new furniture is not the same as experiencing the staunch loyalty of a good friend, and the diamond bracelet can’t compare with holding a newborn baby. But because the chemical exchange that takes place in our bodies during the onset of both the experience of joy and happiness feels similar, we can easily mistake one for the other. One – happiness – fades away, and the other – joy – lingers. Happiness is good for a moment. But then the sun casts down its heat upon it, and the thing shrivels and dies. And then we must return to the beginning again where we long for the next thrill to travel along the synapse in our brains telling us that, again, for this instant, we are happy. But joy nurtures our souls: the place where we feel supreme delight and peace. Joy is a thing that does not fade when the new technology has become obsolete and the new car has become outdated. However, happiness can indeed be fleeting.
So, can money buy happiness? Well, money buys freedom and choice. Money buys comfort. Money can relieve stress, and when used to give to others, it can provide even more happiness! But that’s not to say that it can buy joy. Like any other inanimate object, the hands that hold the money are the greatest telling factor. Thorin’s lesson reminds us to hold it loosely and generously, lest it overtake us, and we live our days longing for the next thrill; for higher and higher stacks of gold to accumulate behind our treasury walls. Have enough, but seek to be content, lest it invite unwanted dragons that attack unknowingly and lay waste the very happiness we so desperately seek.