Can Money Ever Buy You Happiness?None By Lesley Lyle
Many people believe that having money would put an end to all their problems—and for those who struggle to make ends meet, it’s easy to understand why. More money could mean being able to afford quality healthcare, food, a decent place to live in a nice area, and perhaps the ability to leave an unsatisfactory job. Sure, money could make a difference to many aspects of your life, but could it really improve your happiness? Here’s what science has to say.
Will a Higher Income Make You Happier?
Not necessarily. A study of more than 12,000 people from various social and economic groups found no correlation between income and happiness. Those who were affluent didn’t experience as much sadness as those who were poorer—nor was there evidence to show that they were any happier. Many people believe that money will make them happy because their unhappiness is rooted in financial problems. Yet positive psychology explains that happiness is not the same as the absence of unhappiness, just as health is not the same as the absence of disease.
Happiness is a process that is created through one's habits and behaviors, which many have discovered can’t be bought with money. What’s more, this study showed that some of the people who earned higher incomes and were able to afford more possessions and experiences actually seemed to enjoy and savor them less! Earning more may make you less sad in general, but could also reduce your current happiness by reducing your ability to enjoy some of the things you do now.
The Truth About the Lotto
Instead of earning more money, would acquiring instant wealth, such as winning the lottery, increase your happiness? A study of over 500 lottery winners from 12 states in the U.S. showed that most were well adjusted, secure, and generally happy after winning sums from $50,000 to millions of dollars. Many continued to work even though they could afford not to, and gave large amounts of their winnings away to their children and churches. The most common expenditures were buying a house, purchasing a new car, and traveling, but there was no evidence that they were happier than before.
Another study compared the happiness of lottery winners, a group of paralyzed accident victims, and a control group. Participants were asked to rate the amount of pleasure they got from everyday activities such as talking with friends, watching television, and enjoying a joke.The results showed that in relation to the questions, the accident victims’ level of happiness was higher than expected. Interestingly, the lottery winners were no happier than the control group; like the higher earners in the previous study, they also reported getting significantly less pleasure from everyday activities. Perhaps the adaptation-level theory can explain why this is the case.
What We Get Used To
According to the adaptation-level theory, neither adversity nor good fortune will result in long-lasting changes to our happiness levels. Through a process of habituation, we become used to new things and changes to our circumstances. After an adjustment period, our happiness will either rise or fall to its previously set point. This is what the high earners and lottery winners may have experienced. When things once regarded as special because they are only experienced occasionally become readily available, we tend to take them for granted, and they no longer invoke the same amount of happiness and pleasure.
The Hedonic Treadmill
Another factor is what positive psychologists refer to as the “hedonic treadmill.” Through the same process of habituation, the happiness associated with a new purchase, a new job, or a new house soon fades. Trying to recapture and retain feelings of excitement and happiness results in the pursuit of more new things, which becomes a never-ending task, like being on a continuous treadmill. Luckily, there are a few things that have been shown to slow or alleviate this effect.
Focus on Experiences, Not Things
What made you happier—the shiny gadget you bought the day it came out, or the family trip you took last summer? As it turns out, joy from experiences lasts longer than that acquired from purchasing and owning possessions. Research from the University of Colorado and Cornell University showed that people felt happier when they spent money on experiences rather than material purchases. This might sound counterintuitive—after all, possessions can be permanent, whereas experiences have a much shorter time frame—but the positive effect of experiences like traveling, visiting a museum, or participating in a physical activity have been found to be longer lasting.
Plus, experiences can be reexperienced through memories and reinterpreted more favorably in retrospect. For instance, you might recall the sunny weather and eating ice cream on the beach, while conveniently forgetting the discomfort from that nasty sunburn you got. Unlike purchasing material goods, experiences are more likely to lead to social interaction with others at the time—and afterward too. Telling others about your experience can provide opportunities to converse with others who may have a similar or contrasting experience to yours.
Spend Money on Others
In one study, employees were interviewed about their happiness levels before and after receiving a financial bonus at work. Those who spent most of it on others or donated it to charity reported a greater sense of happiness than those who spent it on themselves. The same effect was noted in an experiment where participants were directed to spend a small amount of money—either on themselves or on other people. Again, those who participated in “prosocial” spending benefitted from increased levels of happiness compared to those who spent the money on themselves.
Use Money to Buy Time
Although it appears that money cannot “buy” us happiness, it can help us overcome a common problem that people face—a lack of time. A survey of over 6,000 people from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands revealed that spending money on time-saving services helps reduce feelings of being time-pressured and anxious each day. It seems that if you pay for services such as preprepared food, housecleaning, or someone to run errands on your behalf, you'll likely increase your levels of happiness and well-being. In sum, using your money wisely may provide you with the commodity of more time to do what really makes you happy!
Money: A Question of Balance
It seems that money can’t buy happiness, but for some people it may reduce unhappiness. Spending money on experiences has been found to bring more happiness than spending it on possessions, and if you’re able to pay for time-saving services, you may enjoy more free time as a result. We may daydream that wealth will automatically be accompanied by increased happiness, but there is no evidence to support this. For example, a few months after video game entrepreneur Markus Persson sold his company for $3.3 billion, he stated he could now do whatever he wanted to do. He also said he had never felt more isolated and unhappy in his life.
If you had a choice between being wealthy or being happy, which would you choose?
Lesley Lyle, MAPP, DipHE, is a positive psychology practitioner and associate lecturer on the MSc Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) course at Buckinghamshire New University UK. She is co-founder and director of Positive Psychology Learning and The Positive Psychology People. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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