Many of us think that if we had more money we’d be a lot happier, but would it really happen? Can money buy happiness?
In the industrialized nations, the evidence certainly suggests that being very poor isn’t likely to do much for our happiness levels, because of the pressure to earn enough money to pay the mortgage or rent, plus endless bills. If you haven’t got that money, then getting into debt and having the bank or debt collectors chasing after you is going to be very stressful and certainly lead to unhappiness.
However once a certain basic level of income has been achieved, and poverty is avoided, it seems as if earning more and more money does not necessarily make people happier.
How happy are we?
Surveys have shown that happiness levels have remained virtually the same in industrialised countries since World War II, although incomes have gone up greatly in that time.
People might spend their lives trying to acquire larger houses and better cars but it may not necessarily make them happy. It might in the very short term, but this buzz will soon wear off and then like a shopaholic a new fix will be needed.
Becoming very rich
As for becoming very rich, well how happy it makes us might depend on how that wealth is attained. Lottery winners will certainly have an initial feeling of elation, but after that things can become more uncertain. Yes they can buy the house, cars and holidays they always dreamt of, and give up their jobs. However many find that by doing this they lose their old lives and friends, and end up missing them. Those who give up their jobs miss the feeling of being useful that having a job gives and the camaraderie of workmates. They also have to put up with people constantly trying to get their money off them via begging letters or personal pleas.
Those who make a lot of money by their work, such as businessmen may find the transition to large wealth easier to cope with as the wealth generally accumulates more slowly, so they have time to get used to it.
Spending money on others
But wealth on its own seems unlikely to totally satisfy a person, and it is interesting how people of extreme wealth often feel the drive to start using that wealth to help others. A good example of that is Bill Gates, who after acquiring his enormous wealth at Microsoft gave up his job to concentrate on the charity he set up to help people in Third World countries. Many other rich people also spend a lot of time and money on charity fundraising. It seems as if once they have made enough money to achieve financial security and buy all the material things they could possibly need, the next thing they feel drawn to do is to use their money to do some good for others. Interestingly, this seems to make many of them happier than acquiring more and more material goods for themselves.
Self-made wealthy people also will probably gain as much satisfaction from the success they have achieved in their career than from the financial gains it brings.
The third world
People in undeveloped countries often report happiness levels as high as industrialized countries. But how can that be? Their lives seem so much harder than ours, finding something to eat every day can be struggle.
But although their lives may be hard, they do still have many of the things that make humans happy. For instance their relationships with each other are likely to be very close. Family and friends usually all live nearby and can be supportive of each other, not far apart as they often are in western societies, where people move for better job opportunities and for what they hope will be a better standard of living.
People in poorer nations also don’t have the constant striving for more and more material goods that drives on many people in industrialized nations, but doesn’t seem to make them happy. Being content with what we have seems to be more important than wealth for making us happy. Some millionaires, even billionaires, can’t enjoy their lives because they are too busy driving themselves on to make even more money, perhaps to outdo their friends or competition. Or for some because they fear losing their wealth.
Another factor that seems to affect happiness more than wealth is our genes. Some people are blessed to have more happy drugs in their brains – serotonin and dopamine for instance – than others, so are simply likely to be more happy. The ones with less or shortages of these chemicals will be more likely to be unhappy, however much money they have.
So does money make us happy? Well, it may help, but factors other than material wealth seem to be the biggest indicators of happiness levels. In particular, relationships with others, and how we spend our work and leisure time, seem more important than money in how happy we are likely to be in our lives.