Happiness and money

elizabeth taylor fur

While hosting a little dinner party at my house, a friend who just found a new job discussed  his life goals, his primary objective.

“Make money. Well, yeah, to be happy and all of that, but make money.”

Located in a city that is as ambitious and cash-driven as it is  sarcastic, I couldn’t tell if he was being serious. “Are you… joking?”

“Well, no. That’s the point, isn’t it?”

I mumbled something incoherent back-“Uh, um, I disagree,” and turned to the next conversation. After some time to muddle it over, though, here is my imagined reply:

Focusing on making money as your primary objective, as a purpose in itself, is a flawed argument. Viewing the acquisition of wealth as the central, intrinsic value in life doesn’t foster your simultaneous goal to be happy.  Those two words- ‘be happy’- have some serious baggage to unpack. Gaining wealth can be an offshoot of your goals, but by putting it as the central objective, it’s limiting to the scope of human experience.

Life is not a series of levels in Super Mario – collect gold coins, toss the bad guy in lava, rescue the princess. “Winning” doesn’t exist. Viewing life in this way, as a series of tasks to conquer and points to amass, is a limiting view on the breadth, beauty and complexity of existence.

We can agree that money can indeed buy happiness when it is related to your and your family’s livelihood – healthcare, education, a comfortable home. Beyond the basics, though, there are additional things that play a major role in happiness; for example, being able to take paid days off from work to spend time with those important to you.

A widely-cited 2010 study conducted by Princeton University found that money makes people more satisfied with their lives overall, but income reaches a tipping point where it doesn’t make a significant difference to your happiness day-to-day: $75,000.

“We conclude that lack of money brings both emotional misery and low life evaluation; similar results were found for anger,” Kahneman and Deaton, both professors at Princeton University, wrote in the report. “Beyond $75,000 in the contemporary United States, however, higher income is neither the road to experience happiness nor the road to relief of unhappiness or stress, although higher income continues to improve individuals’ life evaluations.”

Consider the $75,000 figure as a ballpark number, it makes sense to adjust that number based on cost of living, familial situation and other factors. But the point is there: after a certain point of gaining wealth, you receive dwindling returns. Sure, you can upgrade your vacation house in Tahoe or get a slick new ride, but your level of happiness doesn’t drastically increase. At some level, the ‘more is more’ equation just doesn’t bring the purposeful satisfaction you desire.

I’m not going to argue that making money doesn’t play a role in your happiness. For me, making money and satisfaction is related to a sense of autonomy and the ability to make my own decisions. In the not-so-distant past, a woman’s decision-making abilities and economic choices were largely not her own, and I savor my ability to live the life I choose to based upon my own volition. I derive a great sense of satisfaction from economic independence, and I would say that clearly personal income plays a huge role in that. But, it is best to view money as a corollary rather than a primary objective; it isn’t ultimately what I am aiming for, and it is not the ideal that I want to be remembered by.

In my experience, happiness is largely tied to our sense of inter-connectivity- rather than collecting individual moments as if they were charms on a bracelet, the true beauty and satisfaction in life lies in our connections with others. The subtle nuances of human compassion, friendship and empathy are the things in which I derive the most lasting happiness, the values that I espouse and what I hope others remember about me. Relationships are dynamic and constantly shifting; without attention, they can flounder and wilt. Instead of focusing on money as the be-all-end-all, strive for balance in your economic ambitions and personal relationships.

Aristotle was right – aim for the mean between extremes!