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Can money buy happiness?

| Monday, February 22, 2021

In a class this week, the idea of money being capable of buying happiness was brought up. When the professor posed this question, a student responded that money could not buy happiness. The professor then commented on her large Canada Goose winter coat and asked the student if they would be unhappy going outside without it, in the freezing February weather. He then went on to cite a study he had read, claiming that there is a gradual increase of reported happiness up until around $75,000 per year, and then it plateaus. This is what inspired me to write this piece. This topic of discussion isn’t new or revolutionary, but I believe that it is important to keep some level of perspective.

In Kanye West’s song Good Life, he says “Havin’ money’s not everything, not havin’ it is.” Money is not the only thing that matters or that can make you happy. People often say there is so much more to life than money. I agree with these sentiments; however, many times, it comes from people who never struggled to make ends meet. It is drastically easier to downplay the role of money when it is something you don’t have to worry about.

A lot of worries in life that cause so much stress melt away when an individual knows that money will not be an obstacle to overcome this adversity. In a 2010 Princeton Study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, they conclude low income “exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health and being alone.” While money itself may not create happiness, it seems to without a doubt make bad events or situations worse. Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but having no money can prevent happiness or increase unhappiness.

When money is a concern, it dominates the front of your mind, keeping you on edge in case of unexpected or costly situations. Budgeting and planning become essential not to grow an investment portfolio or pay for fancy things, but to pay the rent, keep the lights on and purchase meals. With physiological and safety needs not guaranteed, there cannot be peace of mind. This can leave people unfulfilled, unable to reach level of needs such as belonging, esteem and self-actualization, as described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Working to spend entire paychecks on essentials, just to do it again the next pay period with no time in between to do what you want is not how most people would define happiness. This is a long-winded way of saying that when money is an issue, it makes every issue that much worse, and it has the potential to limit opportunities to create happiness and fulfillment.

Another thing to think about is how money is spent. I think, when thinking of this topic, the common way people associate money being spent is on luxurious material goods. However, money can do a lot to create feelings of happiness aside from luxurious material goods. Besides alleviating financial anxiety, it can be used to help others. Being able to help others, such as family and friends or others in need, has been linked to increasing happiness in many studies. Buying experiences instead of material goods also provides a way to create positive memories to look back on and more moments of happiness. Money may create more leisure time where enjoyable things become more realistically doable. There are a lot of things money can enable people to do.

Who can we trust to tell us whether or not money can create happiness? The very wealthy person who may not know what it is like to be without money? Who just want to blend in and not seem boastful and make others feel worse? There is no right answer, because there are so many other confounding variables to happiness. However, it is important to understand that in a world where basic needs are unassured and one financial or health emergency could cause impacts as significant as homelessness or death, money becomes a major tool to escape unhappiness. Is this so different from buying happiness?

Justice Mory is majoring in Business Analytics and is part of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He is from Southern California and now lives in Duncan Hall. His main goal is to keep learning and to continue to become more informed. He can be reached at [email protected] or @JmoryND on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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