We all know that money doesn’t buy happiness. But do we all actually believe that? Or do many of us think that we would be the exception to this rule – that if we were to win the lottery or get that high-paying job, we’d be much, much happier? When it comes to the question ‘Can money buy happiness?’, it turns out, scientists have done a lot of work on the topic. It’s more nuanced than you might think. Let’s get into it.
What does the research say about whether money can buy happiness?
From an anthropological point of view, traditional research tells us that enhanced economic growth in a population is linked to greater overall well-being, including happiness, lower levels of disease, and greater life expectancy, just to name a few. Likewise, in countries where education levels are higher, incomes are far higher, and population growth is lower (or where people are having children later in life, if at all), overall happiness is rated much higher than in poorer societies.
On the other hand, a 2021 study found that in societies where money plays a smaller role (if any at all), people report higher levels of happiness. The collaborative study between McGill University and the University of Barcelona found that poor, rural regions of the Solomon Islands and Bangladesh experienced greater happiness than their counterparts in urban and more wealthy areas. People in these poorer areas spent more time out in nature and with their families. So is this the key to happiness? Different studies seem to be telling us different things. But there are commonalities among those societies that report more happiness:
“[There is a growing] realization that important supports for happiness are not in principle related to economic output,” says Chris Barrington-Leigh, a professor at McGill’s Bieler School of the Environment. “When people are comfortable, safe, and free to enjoy life within a strong community, they are happy – regardless of whether or not they are making any money.”
But what if I won the lottery tomorrow, wouldn’t I be happier?
In the book, Hurry Up and Meditate, author David Michie examines research around two contrasting groups: lottery winners and accident victims. One might assume that lottery winners experience higher levels of happiness than those who have become paraplegic or quadriplegic due to an accident. And for a short while after their respective events (lottery win and accident), this was true for both groups. Lottery winners reported higher levels of pleasure around simple things (like eating chocolate or enjoying a sunset), while accident victims experienced less pleasure in small moments. But what about in the long term?
The research shows that most people return to their ‘baseline’ or ‘happiness set point’ after a while. This tells us that yes, money can make you feel very happy – but only for a short while. And whilst negative events can make you feel less happy, this is also only temporary. This teaches us the most important thing about happiness and pleasure: Money can increase your pleasure for a while, but it doesn’t increase your overall happiness. David Michie puts it like this:
“If pleasure is a circumstantial enjoyment, happiness refers to a deeper sense of fulfilment not dependent on circumstance, and which is usually accompanied by qualities such as peacefulness, purposefulness, and benevolence. Unlike pleasure, which requires situations to be constantly renewed or upgraded, happiness is a state of mind that grows the more we experience it.”
What is my ‘happiness set point’ and can I improve it?
David Michie discusses another important point in his book, around the happiness set point. The theory (backed by research) is that everyone has a set point at which their happiness naturally sits. Think about it like a fuel gauge on your car. Normally, you might sit naturally at about 50% mark. Others might sit lower or higher on that meter. Positive and negative events can increase or decrease your point on the meter, enhancing your happiness (filling your tank) or lowering it. But eventually, everyone tends to return to the same point they started with (yes, even if you still have plenty of those lottery winnings left over).
The key to happiness is not increasing pleasure or reducing displeasure, despite how many of us treat happiness as a circumstantial thing. The key is in improving your ‘happiness set point’. Thankfully, this is something all of us can do! It comes down to mindfulness. For some, meditation can help, as it helps us to detach from the chatter of our brains, stop focusing on the past or future, and be more present here and now. For others, it’s as simple as learning to appreciate the little things, and the things most likely to bring us happiness: our friends, family, doing something we love, taking time for relaxation and self-care, and not putting off enjoying our lives until retirement, or ‘until I win the lottery’ or ‘until I get that promotion’. For some people, a little extra help is required.
Unfortunately, learning to enjoy the little things or be mindful doesn’t come easily to everyone. For those who suffer from depression, anxiety, or chronic stress, it can be even more difficult. The good news is, there is help. Seeing a psychologist is an excellent way to learn more about mindfulness, but also to better understand the things that are happening ‘behind the scenes’ in your mind. Find out more about how a psychologist can help in our article, 7 Ways a Psychologist Can Help You.
The Fisherman: A lesson on happiness
Robert Puff, Ph.D uses a great story to make our final point:
A fisherman has a small boat, in which he goes out into the ocean every day to fish for a little while. He comes back in each day when he’s caught enough fish to eat. He sits on the beach, enjoying his fish and the beautiful scenery around him.
Then, a rich man comes along and says, “What are you doing? Did you know that if you kept fishing all day long, you could make a lot more money? You could come back and not only just eat your fish, but you could also sell the extra. Then when you’ve made enough money from that, you could buy more boats and hire people to help you catch even more fish. Then you’d have so much money that you’d reach a point when you could relax and enjoy yourself all day long. If you worked really hard, you’d be able to do that in 10 or 20 years from now.”
The fisherman looked at the rich man and said, “That’s what I’m doing now! Why would I do all that?”
More resources for happiness
We’ve done a lot of writing around the topic of happiness here at Integrated Health Specialists. If you’re wondering if money buys happiness, or how you can increase your own happiness, take a look at some of our previous articles. And when you’re ready to see a psychologist to help you on your path to better mental health and happiness, reach out and book an appointment with us.