Money Can’t Buy Happiness, Can It?

Why is “green” so “mean”? You will have to forgive the pun that starts off this post. The “green” I refer to is your money and since we are approaching the big green holiday of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d ease into that green subject.

They say money can't buy happiness, but a lot of people seem to try anyway. Here's more on the complicated relationship between money and happiness.

There are a lot of things in life that are green, from the shamrocks abounding on the holiday to the fields of tall grass out in the countryside and the frog on the pond as well as hundreds of other things you can think of that are green. It can be a beautiful, fun sight and even a cool refreshing smell or taste! But it’s not always.

Although we may remain keen for green, it often gives us more social anxiety than real satisfaction. Face it, if you are like most people, money is on your mind if not 24/7, then at least every waking moment of your day! Sometimes “green” can be really mean…mean and stressful.

Why Are We Stressed About Money?

If you made a graph of money-related things about surviving life since the beginning of time, every line on that graph concerning money and the things that money can buy would soar upward. It would be a statistical pictorial monument to the art of materialism.

When you look at it, inflation-adjusted incomes just keep going up and up and up, hell even right here in the U.S. Since WWII, a period of 75 years, incomes have risen from about $2,700 a year to over $65,000 a year for the average American family. In fact, I have said this many times over my own lifetime, and that’s this:

“If I had been told when I got my very first adult job (back in 1972) that I were to earn say $25,000 a year, I’d have said I’d be a very wealthy man!” I was making about $7,000 a year at the time, so as you can see $25,000 sounded like a huge amount! I was wrong.

I would have been way off the mark thinking about money that way and with hindsight now, I am a true financial genius. But that’s the thing, we tend to learn all about that when we actually live through it, and when it comes to money that always seems to be the case.

Invest in Inflation Because It’s Guaranteed to Go “Up”

Since I have been a working adult, the size of a typical new house has more than doubled and the cost of them has increased tenfold. A two-car garage was once a real luxury in a house, but now you often find homes with a three-car or even a four-car garage as you drive through suburbia. Designer everything, personal electronics, and many other items that didn’t even exist a half-century ago are now just simply mandatory.

No matter how you chart the trends in earning and spending, everything is always up, up, up. But when you make a chart of American happiness since the end of World War II, the lines would be as flat as what the civilized world thought of the world back in 1491.

In polls taken by the National Opinion Research Center in the 1950s, about one-third of Americans described themselves as “very happy.” Since then, the center has conducted essentially the same poll periodically and the percentage of those responding as “very happy” has remained as it was back then. Why is that?

Can Money Buy Happiness?

While we ask that question, we know that money can’t actually buy happiness.

In a TIME Magazine poll, when people were asked specifically about their major source of happiness, money ranked just 14th on the list. Still, we behave as though happiness is just one wave of a credit card away. That’s because many of us view expensive purchases as a shortcut to well-being.

This behavior wasn’t always the way it is now. My mother (and many others who lived through the Depression and the war) told me that money can’t buy happiness. We don’t act as though we listened though, do we?

Ok. Here it comes…my every so often “holier then thou” message to you.

Millions of us spend more time and energy pursuing the things money can buy than engaging in activities that create real fulfillment in life, like cultivating friendships, helping others, and developing a true spiritual sense. It has become even more evident in the real-time world of right now where there seems to be more intensity on having a “great economy” than on the way we actually care and treat each other, our fellow human beings. It seems as though we are very willing to trade money for morality, more than ever these days.

Is There Some Point Where Money Insures Happiness?

The short answer is yes. Happiness tends to increase as income rises, but dramatically more income does not have a dramatic increase in happiness at some point. The wealthiest people, like the Top Forbes 400 families, for example, are only a tiny bit happier than the general public as a whole when polled by Time. That’s because even those with extreme wealth often continue to feel jealousy about the wealth of other wealthy people and even their large sums of money fail to confer well-being.

Wealth Inequality

We hear an awful lot of talk about wealth inequality today, but guess what? It’s not a new subject.

That reference and the anxiety is a product of the continuing widening of the gap in income distribution that has been occurring now for generations. In other words, the rich are getting richer, and the rest of us are none too happy about it. During much of the past, the majority of us lived in small towns or urban areas where conditions for most people were approximately the same, hence a low reference anxiety. Also, most people knew relatively little about those who were living higher on the hog. The communication of wealth inequality just wasn’t possible and basic survival was more of the thing that occupied people’s minds.

But the 21st century has brought new economic forces and rapid growth in income for the top 5% of households. That has brought about a substantial bunch of people who live notably better than the middle class does, amplifying our anxiety.

Thank You, Internet, for Making Me Even More Jealous

That wealthier minority is occupying now ever larger homes and spending more on each change of clothes than others spend on a month’s rent. It all feeds the middle-class anxiety, even when the middle is doing pretty okay.

In nations with high levels of income equality, like the Scandinavian countries, well-being tends to be higher than in nations with unequal wealth distribution such as the U.S. Meanwhile, television and the web make it easier to know how the very well off live. (Never mind whether they’re happy.) Want a peek inside the wealthiest gold-plated world? Just click on the TV, you can see it on any given day or show. Wonder what Bill Gates’ 66,000 sq.ft. mega mansion looks like? Just download the floor plans from the internet!

Final Thoughts

Psychology aside, there are reasons money can’t buy happiness. The things that really matter in life are not sold in stores. Love, friendship, family, respect, a place in the community, the belief that your life has purpose, those are the essentials of human fulfillment. They cannot be purchased with cash. Everyone needs a certain amount of money and yes, there is an importance to it all for you and your family. I can’t deny that. But chasing money rather than meaning in life is a formula for disaster.

Too many make materialism and the cycle of work-and-spend their principal goals. When you do that you are insuring that you will never be or feel truly happy.

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