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Does money get in the way of our happiness?

22 January 2010

To someone with little more is better, and throughout history most people have had little compared to the abundance we enjoy. We all have lived in a fossil-fuel engorged lifestyle for longer than anyone alive can remember, we live in a level of comfort that our ancestors could not have imagined, yet we always desire more.

Our cars are oversized, our debts are oversized, and even many of us are oversized, yet we keep on thinking that more is better. The entire religion of economics is devoted to this belief. A rapidly escalating economy is called “robust,” not “out of control,” and as it slows down it is called “ailing,” not “stabilizing.”

But beyond a certain point, more just means more of what we already have too much of. That goes for eating, drinking, or just about anything. A growing body of data shows that once a person’s basic needs are met, money no longer does anything to make them happier. Yet everyone, whether they make 20,000 dollars a year or 200,000 dollars a year, seems to think that they would be happy if only they made perhaps ten percent more.

However, even as people’s houses get larger and our possessions multiply, people’s happiness has been going down. Some sociologists have suggested that discontent is related to economic growth, as our new wealth is used to build homes further away from each other, as it is used to buy more electronic devices that occupy our time but offer only short-term pleasure, and as it is used to spend more time commuting and less time with loved ones, we get more lonely and more discontented. Do the experiment yourself. Would you rather have a new, bigger television, or a new friend?

In an article titled, “Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness”, in the journal titled Psychological Science, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn talked about how she found that people are not happier when they have more income, but when they give more away. Those who responded as happiest to survey questions turned out to also be the ones who gave most to charity.

Most interestingly, this runs counter to what we all have been taught; when Dunn asked the subjects of her experiment what made them happy, almost all said they’d be happier spending money on themselves.

Perhaps the lesson in that is that by and large, we are capable of being better people than we now realize as being possible.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 22 January 2010 3:20 pm

    Interesting thoughts. A couple notes: I would think that “people are not happier when they have more income, but when they give more away” because, as many social psychologists will agree, there really is no such thing as true altruism. This gives credit to that statement in that people are ‘giving money to charity to feel good about themselves’.

    From a personal experience, i can tell you that I like to make “good” money; but I think that’s different for everyone. So, what I mean is; I would like to make enough money to ensure that everyone I love has everything they need. I think that brings us to another conversation…what is the difference between a “need” and a “want”, but…

    Net / net – I grew up comfortably; and many times wish I hadn’t because I feel as though I always have to strive to live that same lifestyle I had growing up. To your point, I’m rarely content with the way life is and am constantly worried about bills, savings, etc. It is one extra headache…unfortuantely, it’s the reality of our American way of life.

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