Intro: Can Money Buy Happiness? 10 Things About Money and Happiness

Everything from movies to books and everybody from philosophers to talk show hosts has tackled the question: can money buy happiness? 

The overwhelming wisdom is that money doesn’t buy happiness. This idea has been perpetuated in film and television. The main character will spend the first two acts pursuing power and wealth only to come to the conclusion in the third act that money and happiness are not linked.

In most cases, they find that the key to happiness is love or family. Despite all of this, we continue to ask the question: can money buy happiness?

Declarations that money buys happiness are frowned upon in polite company, but a closer examination of society reveals that our priorities and lessons link money and happiness, even if it is in an indirect way.

To put it simply, although we recognize that the key to happiness lies in a number of immaterial things like love, friendship, or family, effectively building or sustaining those things requires money.

key to happiness

Image Source: Can Money Buy Happiness?

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Can Money Buy Happiness? (Love & Family)

1. Love and Money Have Been Tied Throughout History

When it comes to love, each generation has established customs and routines around courtship. Throughout much of history, love was considered an afterthought to marriage. As a result, “love” was mainly transactional and a vehicle through which society could set up an economic and political system that could be maintained across generations through inheritance. In this sense, the key to happiness was a successful marriage and a proper family life.

While our modern conceptions of love are not as intricately tied to marriage and property, our courtship rituals still place importance on material wealth. We may believe money can’t buy happiness, but when it comes to deciding our romantic happiness, we are quick to judge potential partners on their level of success and responsibility. One of the quickest ways to do so is by looking at someone’s job and, by extension, their money. Additionally, courtship or dating involves investing quite a bit of money in things like clothing, outings, and meals.

2. Lack of Money is a Serious Source of Stress & Unhappiness in Families

The same is true for family. If the key to happiness is in family, then happiness is tied to the strength of that family. What is one of the key sources of stress within a household? Money. Poor finances or job insecurity is one of the main sources of stress at home, and if that negatively impacts the family, then logically it will affect a person’s happiness if their family is the source of it. 

Nevertheless, there are many counterarguments. Marriages entered solely for money, even if legally successful, can be emotionally devastating. Parents who believe money does buy happiness may sacrifice quality time with their families in an effort to earn more. It may be that the problem lies in the question itself: “Can money buy you happiness?” The more productive alternative may be to reframe the discussion altogether.

The Correlation Between Money and Happiness

Perhaps it is not a matter of whether money can buy you happiness or money can’t buy you happiness. Instead, an investigation of the correlation between money and happiness is required.

3. Money is Undeniably Useful for Quality of Life

Some claim that the popularity of the “money can’t buy happiness” storyline is an ingenious plot by the rich meant to placate the poor into never demanding their share. Others are doubtful money can buy happiness, period. Instead, many people seek happiness through acts of compassion, service to their community or country, or by pursuing their interests.

can money buy happiness

Image Source: Correlation Between Money and Happiness

Yet even the most ascetic individual will admit that money can’t buy you happiness, but it can certainly make you comfortable. The utility of money is undeniable. Even the very concept of charity is tied to the action of giving some of your wealth to somebody whose suffering is a result of not having any. Additionally, money helps us acquire the basic necessities of life like food and shelter.

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The Correlation Between Money and Happiness: Survival

4. Money Provides the Basic Necessities for Survival

Many have challenged Maslow’s hierarchy of needs since Abraham Maslow first proposed it in a psychology paper in 1943, but it still serves as a useful tool, particularly for this discussion of the key to happiness. His hierarchy breaks down human needs into five levels. Each level can only be reached once the level before it has been properly satisfied. In order of priority they are:

  • Physiological: Air, food, warmth, and shelter
  • Safety: Law, security, and protection
  • Relationships: Love, belonging, friendship, community, and family
  • Esteem: Independence, respect, and accomplishment
  • Self-actualization: Reaching one’s full potential

Today, many of these still apply. Money, as our main medium for exchange, plays a large role in attaining these things. It’s difficult to imagine happiness without food and shelter, and getting to popular ideas of happiness like family and community, one needs those basic things first. Money and happiness are connected – it’s just a question of how strongly. An often cited quote sums this idea up nicely, “Money can’t buy happiness, but neither can poverty.”

Indeed, many contend that the question “Can money buy happiness?” is condescending to the poor. Can there be happiness at all when obtaining the necessities of life is a struggle? A common, comical response from people who hear the question, “Does money buy happiness?” is “I don’t know, but if you give me some, I’ll get back to you.”

The Correlation Between Money and Happiness: Security & Stability

5. Money Provides Security and Freedom from Undesirable Situations

Security is a large part of happiness if not the key to happiness. This is largely why marrying well was for a very long time considered to be a main ingredient for a happy life. Marrying well refers to marrying someone who is financially well off and able to provide for your basic needs — again, linking the security of money and happiness.

Alternatively, money provides individuals in an unhappy marriage the freedom to leave. Many stay in bad marriages out of fear of financial insecurity. Some people can’t afford to get divorced, because they do not have the money for the lawyer, life afterward, or both. In this case, money and happiness are also tied. 

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6. Financial Wealth Provides More Job Flexibility

This notion of security does not only apply to love, but to careers and overall quality of life as well. According to a 2014 study, 52.3% of Americans are unhappy at their jobs. Since the primary motivation for people to work is their livelihood, it is clear that there is a definite correlation between money and happiness. Money provides individuals the freedom to leave their jobs, pursue other employment options, or start their own businesses. Even having a comfortable nest egg can be the difference between stomaching another year at a bad job and quitting work for a couple of months to find a better one.

money and happiness

Image Source: Security & Stability

7. More Money, Fewer Problems: Good Financial Health Contributes To Peace of Mind

Security also contributes to people’s peace of mind. Financial stress doesn’t just affect families – it affects individuals, too. Overall, money is one of the top sources of stress for Americans. Money and happiness are tied when you consider that looming debt or living paycheck to paycheck can all contribute to depressive states. 

Even our future happiness is discussed in terms of financial security. As children, we are told to study hard and get into good schools so that we can secure well-paying jobs. As adults, our future happiness is tied to our financial security in retirement. Investing, saving, and opening 401(k) accounts for our future security are all roundabout ways of talking about money and happiness.

8. Money Grants Access to Quality Health Care

Money and happiness can even be tied in the most literal sense. Those experiencing mental health issues may be unable to afford proper professional help. In a simplistic way, happiness (in the form of recovery or mental stability) is literally purchased when an individual pays for medical care. Approximately 45.6 million Americans suffer from mental illness, and of those people only 38.2% of them get mental health treatment. The biggest obstacle is money; 50 percent of individuals who reported they did not seek mental health care stated they could not afford the cost.

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The Correlation Between Money and Happiness: The Scientific Research

9. Money DOES Buy Happiness, According to Experts – But Only Up to a Certain Point

As expected, scientists have also tackled the question of can money buy happiness. More specifically, it’s economists and statisticians who have taken a crack at it.

Economic research has shown that a higher household income contributes to emotional wellness and higher quality of life. But as demonstrated through previous examples, the correlation between money and happiness is relative. According to one study, how happy an individual is likely to feel about a raise or how much they will stress about getting a raise is relative to the amount of money they are already making.

The proportional relationship between increases in money and happiness tends to plateau after a certain amount. The effect of money on happiness falls victim to the law of diminishing returns. Until a person reaches about $70,000, increases in their income have a significant effect on their happiness. That impact gets smaller and smaller the closer they get to $160,000 and completely disappears by the time they hit $200,000.

The Correlation Between Money and Happiness: The Cost of Immaterial Things

10. The Best Things in Life Are Free…or Not

Once upon a time, the idea of success was tied to material things like a house, a car, and all the latest gadgets and appliances. Now, people aspire to things like travel and experiences. Millennials are more likely to rent and not own a car. A popular sub-genre of the aspirational lifestyle industry is the bloggers who travel the world indefinitely and work remotely. On its face it would appear that money and happiness have become less connected for the most recent generation.

A closer examination reveals that this is not true. Even when it comes to immaterial things, there is a correlation between money and happiness. A decent amount of savings is required to travel the world, and experience-based opportunities like volunteering or internships are often only accessible to those with outside financial support. This does not just apply to millennials, but to individuals from older generations as well.

Experiences akin to the one detailed in the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, where a writer puts all her material possessions in storage and travels the world to find spiritual fulfillment, are mainly accessible to people with the saved income to do so.

Although this may be more indicative of the commodification of experiences, at the end of the day, things like travel and experiential learning cost money. And if happiness is to be found through those things, then they will most definitely need to be funded.

Money and Happiness: Correlation, Not Causality

While there is definitely a correlation between money and happiness, there is no proof of causality between money and happiness. For every situation in which it seems money buys happiness (i.e., security and happiness through marrying for money) there are counterpoints that money doesn’t buy happiness (i.e., a loveless union caused by marrying for money).

Rather, money serves as a useful tool, and not having it can jeopardize not only a person’s happiness, but their survival as well. Even if love of money is the root of all evil, any saint will admit that it’s a helpful evil. While it’s unclear if money does buy happiness, one thing is certain: it sure makes things a whole lot easier.

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