Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Quest for Happiness: Money & Happiness

Almost everything we do seems to be in the pursuit of happiness. We go to the gym and exercise to be in good health. And why do we want to be in good health? Because good health is a precondition for happiness or so we believe. We work hard in our respective professions and improve our skills in various ways because we believe that professional success will lead to happiness. We look for great friends and passionate relationships in the name of happiness. We may feel tempted to call shallow those who seek happiness by purchasing Aston Martin cars and Gucci bags, but looking for happiness in relationships, careers and achievements is really not that different. In all cases, it is a search for happiness by looking for something outside ourselves. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against striving for good health, loving relationships and professional success. These are all very worthy goals and I don’t believe we ought to give up on creating these in our lives. In fact, the same goes for nice cars, clothes and other material goods. I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with creating and enjoying material wealth. However, the entrenched belief that happiness comes from these external things is a dangerous delusion.

The most publicized version of this misconception is in the context of money and happiness. Most of us have heard stories in the media of fabulously wealthy individuals who are nevertheless very miserable and who are in need of antidepressants just to cope. The most natural conclusion to draw from this would be that money does not necessarily lead to happiness. However, my sense is that many of us refuse to draw that conclusion and instead of revising our belief about money and happiness, we prefer to believe that more money will lead to happiness and that the reason that person is miserable is because there is something seriously wrong with them. In others words, that person is unhappy because he is crazy and abnormal. Any normal person with that amount of money would of course be happy. This allows us to maintain our psychological status quo, thus enabling us to continue striving for more money in hope that it will someday yield happiness. As tempting as that interpretation might be, it doesn’t hold water. Research shows that above a certain level, there is almost no correlation between money and happiness. In other words, as long as there is enough money for food, shelter and other basic necessities, adding more income does not necessarily add more happiness.

At first sight, this may sound like discouraging news: if money doesn’t create more happiness, then what’s point? However, in reality, this realization sets things straight and creates a much healthier relationship to money. Money is a wonderful tool that allows us to buy things we want and sell our talents or products to others. It is a vehicle for the exchange of energy in the form of goods and services, nothing more and nothing less. And when we truly understand this, we know that there is nothing inherently wrong with generating more money, but we are also not entranced by the belief that if we work twice as hard and sacrifice a few friendships, then we will make some more money, which will make us finally happy.

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