Money Won't Buy Happiness, According to Science—Here's Why
For decades psychologists have studied the relationship between wealth and happiness, and despite being richer, Americans aren’t any happier. As author of Wealth & Happiness, David Geller says, “America is ‘house rich’ and ‘happiness poor.’” But even if you read all the best “how to be happy” tomes to try and elevate your inner joy, about half of our happiness is already pre-determined from birth. According to researchers at the University of Minnesota who tracked identical twins separated at birth, about 50% of our happiness is “genetically determined.” So what about the other half? Will money bring pleasure and inner peace?
Unfortunately no. It certainly hasn’t helped Minecraft billionaire Markus Persson. Despite having enough money to buy a $70 million L.A. mansion (apparently he outbid Jay Z) the 35-year-old computer game developer took to Twitter recently to lament his loneliness, isolation, and lack of motivation since selling his gaming company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. He tweeted: "The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance.” It seems Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right all along when he said, “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; It lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” Scroll down to read a few reasons why being rich doesn’t make you happy, according to science.
How often have you said to yourself, “If I had that new pair of sneakers, then I’d be happy,” and the new purchase does make you happier? That sense of gratification when you buy something new is immediate, but unfortunately it doesn’t last. University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin coined it the “hedonic treadmill.” You buy a new car or a new house, and you're very happy for the first week or the first month. But six months later, you go back to your baseline levels of happiness. James Altucher confirmed the theory that “having a lot of money makes you want to make more” in a recent Quora thread titled “What does it feel like to be financially rich?.” He said, “I thought, if I could make 10 million dollars then it must be too easy. In fact, I honestly thought, everyone else had probably already made 11 million dollars. So then I felt poor again. I now needed 100 million dollars to be happy." So can we make our lives happier? Easterlin suggest, “Most people could increase their happiness by devoting less time to making money, and more to non-pecuniary goals, such as family life and health.”
If you weren’t born into money, then you’ve all dreamed of what it must be like to be mega wealthy. But here’s why you should probably be happy with what you have—and the middle-to-low-income family you were born into. According to a study, rich kids have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than their less-affluent peers. Financial abundance usually provides more security, assets, and opportunities, but research by Professor Suniya Luthar of Arizona State University, published in the Journal of Development and Psychopathology, shows that young people whose parents have a combined income of $160,000 per year or more “experience twice the standard national rate of depression and anxiety than those from less well-to-do families.”
Money certainly has its perks—it allows you to buy what you want and need—but more importantly, you can buy time to be with the people you love most. But what if your excess wealth is the very thing that isolates you from everyone? This is the certainly the case for Persson who tweeted: "Hanging out in Ibiza with a bunch of friends and partying with famous people, able to do whatever I want, and I've never felt more isolated." The BBC asked people on Quora if “getting rich is worth it” and a respondent, Murat Morrison, who made a lot of money from the sale of his trucking company in the late 1990s, said while “money buys comfort, comfort is not happiness or satisfaction. I felt as empty as a drum for the next few years. While it is good to be comfortable, it is more satisfying to be happy.”
How much money will it take to make us happy? At what point will you finally say, “That’s enough money, now I’m happy,”? Our insatiable appetite always has us wanting more. How often have you said to yourself, “Once I reach X amount a year, I’ll be happy,” and then, once you’ve realized that goal, started to plan your next annual pay raise? According to a Princeton University Study, the sweet spot is $75,000 a year, anything past this income benchmark and people “don’t report any greater degree of happiness.” The research revealed two types of happiness: the changeable day-to-day attitudes, and the deeper satisfaction about where your life is headed. While making above $75,000 gave people an overall satisfaction their life is working out, it didn’t make a difference to their morning mood. So easing financial woes and relieving poverty can bring happiness, but a bigger income doesn’t. Even Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman found that “once people reach a little beyond the average middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increases in happiness.”
While it might seem like a dream come true, acquiring extreme wealth suddenly can leave people “feeling detached from themselves.” Forbes contributor and psychologist, Todd Essig said, “Sometimes there are conflicts about felt identity. For example, one person said to me ‘The bigger the bonus, the less I feel like myself.’” Psychologist and author of Affluence Intelligence, Stephen Goldbart coined this condition of “social isolation” and confusion, Sudden Wealth Syndrome.
You’re finally working in your dream career and you’re making more money than ever before, so why the frown? In a survey titled "Joys and Dilemma of Wealth" by Boston College, the ultra rich are generally pretty unhappy and one of their secret fears is “failing to meet expectations.” This not only applies to their work but also to simple things like gift giving. Some of the wealthy respondents in the survey said they no longer looked forward to the holidays “because they are always expected to give really good presents.” One of the survey organizers, Robert Kenny said not even expensive gifts could meet expectations. "That was a pretty good present," the recipients might say. "But last year, you gave me a car."
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Opening photo: Tommy Ton for Vogue
F*ck Feelings by Michael Bennett MD and Sarah Bennett ($12)