Whether money buys happiness or not is a topic that rarely fails to grab people’s attention. Most people will have their own thoughts on the topic and often when a new piece of research is published it rarely fails to get picked up in the media. However, one minute the research seems to say money does buy happiness and in the next it does not.
The money and happiness debate goes back and forth. Some of my own research has appeared in the media over the years and I used to engage enthusiastically, thinking it important to get ideas out beyond the academic world, but I have become tired and frustrated. Often much of the research is either poorly interpreted by the media or misrepresented by the researchers themselves. Overall it seems to me that the protracted debate probably ends up confusing or irritating most people and I question its value.
We’re about to have a comment published in Psychological Science that critiqued a paper published last year in the same journal that suggested that consumption could be a key to greater happiness. Unsurprisingly the paper we commented upon received a lot of media attention when it was published, which is how I first came across the research, with the key message of that paper being that money can indeed buy happiness and if it doesn’t then people are simply not spending it right.
This is a dangerous and misleading message
We demonstrated that their conclusions were of questionable validity and overstated. What was not reported, and rarely is in research on money and happiness, is that whilst researchers are often able to show that money may enable people to buy some happiness, it often buys so little it doesn’t matter. When someone is struggling to meet their basic needs through poverty or indebtedness, for example, then money is of course important.
However, beyond meeting those basic needs the effect on happiness from having more money is fairly trivial. There are plenty of people with a lot of money who are not happy and again many living simple low consumption lives that are happy. We know of many other factors that have been consistently shown to have much stronger links to happiness – our personal and social relationships, our mental and physical health, being in stable and meaningful employment, and our personality.
We live in a culture that promotes materialism. The message often received in daily life, from adverts and elsewhere, is that people ought to buy more if they want their lives to improve. But in the process of trying to obtain happiness through consumption it sometimes encourages unsustainable debt and/or people to work jobs for longer than is ideal.
I feel angry and frustrated when academic researchers misrepresent their research to also promote or condone a culture that is already rampant with materialism.
As we stated in our comment:
“Materialism is associated with less happiness, and there is a danger that if academics encourage people to pursue consumption with the hope of obtaining greater happiness, then individuals and policy makers may sacrifice pursuing other things that are more important to happiness than consumption.”
Fortunately, although not necessarily easy, there are alternatives.
If you’ve got money and want to spend it for greater happiness then by all means spend money on others rather than your-self, spend on experiences rather than material goods, or on things that better align with your personality. But my guess is that you’re likely to get more happiness by spending time, not money, on others and with your-self, and there is still much to be said for the truism that the best experiences in life are free.
So better still if you have got money then use it to create time for yourself and others. If you earn more than enough then it might be better for your happiness and well-being to find a way to work less. Money is not a basic need in its self – it is just one of many strategies that help to get those basic needs met – it is just very saddening that there is so much encouragement to think otherwise.
***If you like this post then perhaps you will like some of the other posts I have written about money and happiness:
- Do we have to believe that more money leads to greater happiness? (a blog post about where our beliefs about money and happiness might come from)
- Travel – Money and happiness (a blog post about whether we need money to find happiness through travel)