How Money Can Buy You Happiness
Despite assertions to the contrary, science tells us that money can buy
happiness. To a point. From a recent study (my emphasis):
We report an analysis of more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-
Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 US residents
conducted by the Gallup Organization. […] When plotted against income,
life evaluation rises steadily. Emotional well-being also rises with log
income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of
~$75,000. For reference, the federal poverty level for a family of four
is currently $25,100. Once you reach a little over 3 times
the poverty level in income, you've achieved peak
happiness, as least far as money alone can reasonably
This is something I've seen echoed in a number of studies.
Once you have "enough" money to satisfy the basic items at
the foot of the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid – that is,
you no longer have to worry about food, shelter, security, and
perhaps having a bit of extra discretionary money for the
unknown – stacking even more money up doesn't do much, if
anything, to help you scale the top of the pyramid.
But even if you're fortunate enough to have a good income,
how you spend your money has a strong influence
on how happy – or unhappy – it will make you. And, again,
there's science behind this. The relevant research is
summarized in a recent study in Journal of Consumer
Psychology by a quartet of Harvard researchers: If money doesn't
make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right:
Most people don't know the basic scientific facts about happiness — about
what brings it and what sustains it — and so they don't know how to use
their money to get it. It is not surprising when wealthy people who know
nothing about wine end up with cellars that aren't much better stocked than
their neighbors', and it shouldn’t be surprising when wealthy people who
know nothing about happiness end up with lives that aren't that much
happier than anyone else's. Money is a chance for happiness, but it is an
opportunity that people routinely squander because the things they think will
make them happy often don't.
What is, then, the science of happiness? I'll summarize the basic six
points as best I can…
1. Buy experiences instead of things
Things get old. Things become ordinary. But experiences are totally
unique; they shine like diamonds in your memory, often more
brightly every year, and they can be shared forever. Whenever
possible, spend money on experiences such as taking your family
to Disney World, rather than things like a new television.
2. Help others instead of yourself
Anything we can do with money to create deeper connections with
others tends to tighten our social connections and reinforce positive
feelings about ourselves and others. Imagine ways you can
spend some part of your money to help others – even in a very
small way – and integrate that into your regular spending habits.
3. Buy many small pleasures instead of few big ones
Because we adapt so readily to change, the most effective use of
your money is to bring frequent change. Break up large purchases,
when possible, into smaller ones over time so that you can savor
the entire experience. When it comes to happiness, frequency is
more important than intensity. Discover how many small,
pleasurable purchases are more effective than a single giant one.
4. Pay now and consume later
Immediate gratification can lead you to make purchases you can't
afford, or may not even truly want. Impulse buying also deprives
you of the distance necessary to make reasoned decisions. It
eliminates any sense of anticipation, which is a strong source of
happiness. For maximum happiness, savor (maybe even prolong!)
the uncertainty of deciding whether to buy, what to buy, and the
time waiting for the object of your desire to arrive.
5. Think about what you're not thinking about
We tend to gloss over details when considering future purchases,
but research shows that our happiness (or unhappiness) largely lies
in exactly those tiny details we aren't thinking about. Before making
a major purchase, consider the mechanics and logistics of owning
this thing, and where your actual time will be spent once you own
it. Try to imagine a typical day in your life, in some detail, hour by
hour: how will it be affected by this purchase?
6. Beware of comparison shopping
Comparison shopping focuses us on attributes of products that
arbitrarily distinguish one product from another, but have nothing
to do with how much we'll enjoy the purchase. They emphasize
things we care about while shopping, but not necessarily what we'll
care about when actually using what we just bought. In other
words, getting a great deal on cheap chocolate for $2 may not
matter if it's not fun to eat.
Happiness is a lot harder to come by than money. So when you do
spend money, keep these lessons in mind to maximize what
happiness it can buy for you. And remember: it's science!