I’ve been wrestling with the “does money buy happiness” question for some time in part because it seems I could successfully argue both sides of the debate. Over the holidays, I decided to do a deep reflection on this to resolve it once and for all. My conclusion – Money does buy happiness but certain conditions apply.
If your life could use more happiness, see if any of these are getting in the way.
- You can’t buy happiness on credit
I hate to be the bearer of bad news. This is the dirty secret the credit card companies and banks fail to reveal. In the mounds of disclosure that accompany borrowing arrangements, there is no mention of the simple fact “Debt does not buy happiness”. The reality seems just the opposite. In my experience, over-indebted people are stressed and unhappy. These folks may have been searching for happiness but what they got was indenture. Now they’d settle for relief.
I considered the question – Does the presence of money guarantee happiness? My conclusion? Absolutely not. We all know, or know of, people who have oodles of money and are miserable. This must be a real puzzler for those who are moneyless. The explanation comes in the next condition.
2. You need to know what makes you happy
Here’s a little exercise: Look back at the happy experiences in your life and reflect on:
- The people you were with
- The work you were doing
- The growth you were undergoing
- The excitement you were feeling
- The purpose you were fulfilling
- The mystery you were contemplating
- The contribution you were making
- The spirit you were awakening
- The magic you were experiencing
How central was money to each/any of these? Yes, we need money to provide for the basics of life and for useful stuff and interesting experiences. At some point though, we start to ask too much of it and our unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment. Reflecting on my life, I’ve lived in dumpy dwellings and driven crappy cars while being ecstatically happy (and vice versa). The source of my happiness likely traced back to one or more of the occasions shown above. What about you?
3. Happiness requires balancing pleasure with meaning
OK, money may buy pleasurable things and experiences which in turn can lead to happiness (at least in the short run). Does this mean our path to happiness is limitless, self-indulged pleasure (aka hedonism)? This may sound seductive but I suspect few would permanently choose this life. Evidence of this can be found in our own childhoods. After a summer of fun, we become bored and eager for a return to school. Another example comes from vacationing at a Caribbean all-inclusive. By the end of two weeks, we’re done. Even if we had the money, a life of pure pleasure isn’t our happiness endgame. This is where we have to read the money/happiness fine print.
It’s easy to get confused about this. Mythologist Joseph Campbell famously said we should “follow our bliss”. Many (myself included) have mistaken Campbell’s use of the word bliss to mean pleasure. A deeper reading of his material shows what he actually meant by bliss was more akin to purpose. His full quote Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.
Campbell was urging us to follow the path that was uniquely our own (what he referred to as the Hero’s Journey). The Hero’s Journey is all about the pursuit of meaning as a path to happiness/bliss. You can’t book it using credit card points.
That’s enough deep thinking for now. It’s time to go have some fun!