Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Well, the Lexus ad states that anyone who says money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it the right way. Certainly money can buy a Lexus, and a lot of other things too, and it’s fairly common for me to hear people say that they would be happy and their life would be great if they could just win the lottery or make movie star or professional athlete type money. They’d quit their job, buy anything they wanted, move somewhere exotic, and live happily ever after. The ubiquitous news reports of movie stars and other wealthy people who are having significant problems would seem to indicate that loads of money doesn’t necessarily correlate well with peace and happiness, but I wanted to discuss some current research evidence that addresses this question.
A 2008 and 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey of 450,000 Americans indicated that reported happiness and overall life satisfaction increased with income to a point and then leveled out. Additional income beyond that point continued to be associated with an improved sense of well-being, but not necessarily with more day to day happiness. The researchers also compared life-satisfaction survey results amongst countries and determined that America ranked 9th behind the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New Zealand.

In another recent study by Jordi Quoidback that was reported in the 2010 August edition of Psychological Science, results indicated that while money allows people to buy things, it also simultaneously impairs their ability to enjoy those things. The wealthier that the workers in the study were, the poorer they were at displaying a capacity to enjoy their positive experiences. The researchers explained this by stating that while wealth allows people to buy and experience more things it ultimately undermines their ability to savor life‘s simple pleasures.

For example, they stated that if someone had frequent opportunities to take expensive vacations, eat at fancy restaurants, and drive pricy cars, they might not get the same feelings of pleasure from having coffee with a friend, experiencing a sunny, nice day, or taking a walk with a loved one. Indeed a study of lottery winners indicated that the winners experienced less enjoyment from life’s simple pleasures than those who didn’t win money.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., argued that having money raises our aspirations of what we should expect to have in our daily lives. These raised aspirations not only lead us to take things for granted and impair our savoring abilities but they can also cause us to consume too much, tax the planet's resources, overspend and under save, go into debt, gamble, live beyond our means, and purchase mortgages that we can’t afford (20% of Americans trade in their automobiles every two years).

She concluded that there were several research supported ways in which money could be spent with sustained feelings of happiness. These ways included spending our money on activities that help us grow as a person, strengthening our connections with others (dinners or trips with friends) contributing to our communities, spending it on activities and experiences rather than material possessions, spending it on many small pleasures rather than on one big-ticket item, and splurging on something that we work extremely hard to get and have to wait for. Dr. Lyubomirsky also concluded that we can derive the most happiness from our purchases if we take the time to appreciate the objects of our spending and strive to not compare ourselves with others in terms of what we have or what we’ve done.

Overall, these fairly recent research studies seem to indicate that to a point, a certain amount of money can be helpful in increasing perceived happiness and overall well being but that there can be pitfalls when having money and buying things leads to a loss of ability to savor the little things each day or to overspend, over consume or take things for granted. There also appears to be several ways money could be spent with sustained feelings of happiness.

Ultimately, I’ve heard many philosophers and psychologists discuss happiness as an inner state that transcends where we live and what we own, and in that sense, the things a person buys or does with money are fairly irrelevant in determining the happiness of the person.

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