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Money doesn’t buy happiness…really

by Archives September 24, 2003

Money can’t buy happiness – it’s official.

It is pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness; poverty and wealth have both failed! This little bit of wisdom comes from U.S. journalist, humorist, homespun philosopher and creator of the cartoon character “Abe Martin,” Kin Hubbard. Hubbard at one time did say if the entire world reached the American dream then we would truly know happiness.

Psychologists now report the popular notion of the American dream – achieving happiness through influence and money – may not be a recipe for contentment after all. New research suggests self-esteem, feeling competent, in control of your life and close to people you care about are more important for psychological well-being.

Experts say that excessive wealth, particularly for people unaccustomed to it, such as lottery winners, can actually cause unhappiness. But autonomy, competence in what you do, a sense of closeness with others and self-esteem, do bring a well-rounded state.

Dr. Kennon Sheldon, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, used three different groups of students, including one from South Korea, to study happiness levels. He asked the first group to identify what had been the single most satisfying event they had experienced during the last month. The second group was told to look at the most satisfying event of the past week and the last group of students was asked to describe their most unsatisfactory event of the whole university term.

The students rated self-esteem, relatedness (feeling connected with people), autonomy (feeling in control) and competence (feeling effective) as the top four emotions that accompanied feeling satisfied. At the bottom of the list were popularity, influence, money and luxury.

“These aspects of the American dream may not be so desirable after all,” says Sheldon.

The research, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that the three groups returned fairly similar results. For the American students, self-esteem was top of their list. For the South Koreans it was a sense of closeness.

The students also listed a lack of security as something that profoundly affected their stability. “It appears that when things go wrong, people may strongly wish for the safety and predictability that they often take for granted,” says Sheldon.

Sheldon hopes to extend their study “to help individuals find conducive social and vocational niches and to motivate them to develop their skills further within those niches”.

Diana Pidwell, a community and clinical psychologist at Blackpool Wyre and Fyde Community Trust and a member of the British Psychological Society, agreed money could not buy happiness. “Many studies have been done on the importance, or otherwise, of money and what seems to be the consensus is that once you have the basic level then after that it does not make any difference to happiness,” she says. “There is evidence that there are very wealthy people who are very unhappy. Particularly people who were not born to wealth like lottery winners.”

The findings add to a growing body of evidence about what underpins well being and motivation.

For example, the result that emotional needs are more important than financial ones is echoed by over a hundred other studies that conclude that people are more motivated by internal emotions than by external rewards such as money.

Edward Deci, of the University of Rochester in New York, recently illustrated this point by showing that people may be happy to work through puzzles without getting any money, whereas those paid to do so are inclined to stop once the money is withdrawn.

But those who have always been happy say money was never a part of their game plan.

“Happiness is a decision, which is why money can’t buy it,” says Lionel Ketchian, the founder of the Happiness Club. In pursuit of money, working even harder, we are, says Ketchian, on a hedonic treadmill – a phrase that resonates with most of us.

“Right across Europe people report more stress, harder work, greater fear of insecurity, chasing elusive gains. The seven key factors now scientifically established to affect happiness most are: mental health, satisfying and secure work, a secure and loving private life, a safe community, freedom and moral values.”

Steven Rhodes, a former bankruptcy clerk turned happiness coach, agrees and perhaps sums it up best.

“If you believe that you will suddenly become happier and more satisfied with life just because you earn 50 per cent more per year or win a lot of money, you might be rich in measure, but not in spirit. Enough will never be enough until you can learn to be happy with what you currently earn.”

As long as you are unconscious of why and how you use money, it will drip through your fingers. You will never be able to hold on to it.

Few would disagree that, to a certain extent, money brings happiness.

But according to Sheldon and his researchers once enough is earned to meet basic needs, money in relation to happiness is a very personal equation.

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