can money buy happiness? yes. no. sometimes. maybe.

My friend Impudent Strumpet writes a series of posts that dispute the oft-repeated notion "money can't buy happiness". (Here's an example.) I find this idea very thought-provoking. I've definitely subscribed to the idea that money doesn't equal happiness - that making the acquisition of riches a primary life goal does not lead to a happy life. Imp Strump's posts led me to think more clearly about this axiom and see what kinds of truths it might or might not hold.

If money doesn't buy happiness, try living without any

For people who live in poverty, money undoubtedly could buy a great deal of happiness. The stresses of poverty are endless, and few of us would deny that being able to afford adequate food, housing, fuel, health care, and other basic necessities would make many people who lack those things very happy indeed. That is why universal health insurance and a more just, rational economic system would solve more problems for more people than the system of profit and greed we have now.

Beyond that, for those of us who are not necessarily poor or low-income, being able to afford some wonderful life supports and conveniences definitely buys a large measure of happiness.

In recent weeks, I have purchased new eyeglasses, new orthotics for my shoes, and some veterinary services. All were very expensive. I didn't want to spend so much money on these things, but I had no choice; all are necessary for my comfort and well being. (Some may consider dogs a luxury, but they are my family.) Each time I took out my credit card, I thought, what do people do who can't afford these things? If your feet hurt or you can't see properly, and you can't afford the solution, how do you cope?

After your most basic needs are met, having enough discretionary income so that an unexpected expense doesn't force you to make difficult and uncomfortable choices is a very real happiness. I've lived both ways, and I can tell you, the reduction of anxiety is tremendous. The column Imp Strump quotes in her recent "money buying happiness" post gives the perfect example.
People with plenty of money have crummy luck all the time, too, but it’s just an inconvenience for them. My parents are millionaires. Last week their heater, car, and garage door broke. So what?

If they were poorer, each problem would've caused two more problems. People living on the edge are vulnerable to every mishap in a way that is catastrophic.
Living lives of our own choosing

Being able to do the things you love is another kind of happiness that money can buy. My greatest love is travel, and travel costs money. When I don't have money to travel at least a little, I'm considerably less happy.

Money also buys leisure time. When you must count every dime and dollar to make it to the next cheque, you must do everything as cheaply as possible. You can't afford little conveniences that make it easier to prepare dinner, or big conveniences like a car, which makes it easier for you and your family to participate in various activities. Without any discretionary income, you have less time to enjoy life, and fewer options when you do.

I do believe that there's a kind of happiness that money can't buy, a basic contentment, a satisfaction with one's life path, that no amount of material goods will touch. Yet money affects this, too. No matter what gives your life meaning - gardening, cooking, travel, photography, hiking, sports, writing, etc., etc., etc. - you need some leisure time and some discretionary income to pursue it. As the notion of good job and decent employment crumbles, we see more people completely consumed with survival. Less money equals less happiness.

Small-picture vs big-picture happiness? Is that it?

Despite all this, which I find logical and irrefutable, I do think there is some truth buried in the saying "money doesn't buy happiness". I once wrote about small- and big-picture luck. Maybe that's the distinction here, too.

I went to university with lots of people whose primary life goal was to make a lot of money. Not to earn money doing something they loved, or to be well compensated for helping others, but to make as much money as possible, full stop. I see no evidence that fulfillment of that goal leads to happiness. It appears to lead to the desire to make more money. Which in turn leads to the desire to make more money.

It also leads to things like Enron, Nortel, and Worldcom - things like the Bhopal and Deep Horizon - which lead to a huge amount of unhappiness for untold numbers of people, through absolutely no fault of their own.

The pursuit of profit does not lead to happiness. I am comfortable stating that as a fact.

I have also met many people who are completely caught in the thrall of consumerism. They spend constantly, and are often broke, because they are always buying clothes, shoes, gadgets, what have you. Shopping is the main focus of their lives, like a bottomless pit of getting and spending. Their purchases do appear to buy a small measure of good feeling, but it is fleeting, ephemeral. As soon as the feeling fades, they are shopping again. If it sounds like I'm describing an addiction, I am. This addiction to things - buy, buy, buy, more, more, more - is created and fed by the consumerist, capitalist system in which we live.

I think, too, that money does not create the deepest kind of happiness: how we feel about ourselves, our relationships, our lives. While money can buy us a great deal of comfort and convenience, wealth can't actually turn an unhappy person into a happy person. An adequate income can remove a huge amount of stress from a relationship, but it can't in itself create a loving, respectful relationship where one does not exist. When a person is unhappy with herself, material goods offer, at best, a very short-term band-aid, and possibly not even that. A life spent chasing material wealth will not bring inner contentment. In that sense, money does not buy happiness.

The solution: revolution

By my observation, people with tremendous amounts of money - people who live lives of lavish excess - could lose a large percentage of that wealth and still be happy. But people of modest means would find their lives greatly improved by a sudden influx of cash, or the sudden affordability of services.

Thus, a global revolution that ushers in a more equitable distribution of wealth, and the socialization of resources that are currently held for private profit, would probably make a small percentage of people a bit less happy. But it would lead to a tremendous net increase in human happiness overall.

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