Do you make too much money? No such thing, right? Doesn’t money make you happy – or at least happier than if you didn’t have it?
Let’s say you earn enough to address your basic needs and the occasional splurge, and find you’re as happy as the days when you made more and carried a heavier load of complications. Does that sound reasonable or improbable?
Where does meaning fit into the picture? Not just feeling good, but feeling good about the significance of your presence and your activities knowing you’re living by a set of morals or principles that keep you grounded?
Two articles caught my eye in recent days, both dancing around the subjects of happiness, money, and meaning, though from different angles.
The Week features a discussion that references Princeton research on the $75,000/year earnings threshold beyond which “money does not buy happiness,” or at least, not more happiness.
The Atlantic examines health, happiness, and meaning, leading us to consider the significant impact to health and well-being of feeling good about our contributions, rather than simply “feeling good.”
My Personal Happiness Credo
I’ve expressed concerns previously that happiness is a trendy (and unreachable) goal. I like feeling good as much as anyone, and of course I want my children to be “happy” – the word itself, a catch-all we could debate for days.
But I don’t contemplate happiness or seek to measure it, but rather to fulfill my responsibilities, to have fun when I can, and to maximize the likelihood of good moments, meaningful experiences, satisfying contributions, and contentment with my accomplishments.
I have attempted to demystify happiness – at least for myself, aware that when providing for a family, survival takes precedence, which doesn’t preclude good moments that occur.
A state of sustained peaks simply isn’t among my objectives, though many of my goals do lead to moments of joy, satisfaction, and contentment – in other words, a range of positive emotions – which I may experience over a home-cooked bowl of soup and conversation, completing a writing assignment that does its job for a client, receiving a phone call from one of my sons with good news, or giving an hour to a volunteer activity that I care about.
Sharing unexpected laughter is always wondrous, don’t you agree? A little mirth goes far. Mirth – a moment of lightheartedness, silliness, pleasure – can happen anytime, anywhere, and is generally free of charge.
Maybe Money Buys Happiness After All…
Shall we agree that money can’t buy you love, though it may fund a little “company?” What about money buying happiness?
Shopping can offer its own dose of dopamine delight, at least until the credit card bills show up – and you don’t have the bucks to cover them. But setting aside the shopaholics for a moment, money buys the security that you will have your basic needs met for yourself and your family.
Beyond that, we’re into a discussion that is both psychological and social – what we need versus what we want, those who don’t feel fulfilled without a constant flow of “more,” and an interesting topic referenced in The Week: the necessity of transitioning from buying “stuff” to buying experiences.
In “The Secret to Smarter and Happier Spending,” The Week cites Princeton data on the $75k figure as follows: “research shows that once Americans earn beyond $75,000 a year, additional income doesn’t make them any happier.”
Along with that premise, the viewpoint of behavioral scientists Dr. Elizabeth Dunn and Dr. Michael Norton is explored. They propose that it’s how we spend our money that affects our happiness.
Doctors Dunn and Norton suggest we exchange what we can count for what we can experience:
… it’s very hard for us to get away from the idea that stuff is a good way to make us happy. We want to know if we are making progress in our lives or doing better than others — both of these things are deeply human tendencies. I can say, “I have a bigger house than I used to, so I must be doing better in my life.”
The problem — as research shows — is that these things [like having a larger home] don’t actually make us happier…
As the interview in The Week continues, the principle of “buying experiences” reminds me of my years of travel. Those encounters, those visuals, those lessons in perspective all nourish and enrich me as a person, a parent, and a writer. While we certainly may identify with our stuff, we absorb our experiences in ways we carry throughout a lifetime.
Among the examples of buying experience referenced in The Week are trading off $5/day at Starbucks for a $25 dinner out, and charitable giving. Can we reasonably assume that the meal is shared with a friend, with the obvious benefits of socializing?
As for spending in which a specific amount is designated to a worthwhile cause, the result is a sense of connection and purpose that may be served. What you’ve just acquired is more than something you can count; it’s a feeling of satisfaction, and knowledge that you’ve done something helpful.
Perhaps these experiences meander into “meaning?”
Money Buys Freedom
If I can’t pay my bills – the basics – I’m going to be stressed and scared. Like millions of others, I’ve been there, and it’s dreadful.
We’ll chalk up the reasons to a variety of factors including a difficult divorce, a financially challenging aftermath, a rough economy, illness, and a bit of bad luck. Naturally, I don’t exclude my own hand from those hard times; hindsight generally illuminates our poor decisions.
Still, if you’re sick and can’t afford a doctor, if you’re hounded by bill collectors, if you’re worried about a roof over your head, if you’re straining to put food on the table for your children, happiness is the last thing on your mind and positive feelings are difficult to dredge up.
Survival is first and foremost.
In fact, the same Princeton research cited above states:
As income decreased from $75,000, respondents reported decreasing happiness and increasing sadness and stress. The data suggest that the pain of life’s misfortunes, including disease, divorce, and being alone, is exacerbated by poverty.
Money buys freedom of choice, or certainly more choices. And most importantly in my opinion, money buys freedom from a certain amount of worry.
Meaning and Positive Emotions
Positive emotions include those I typically feel that have little to do with money and everything to do with the routines in my day: relief when a sick friend is doing better, a smile from a stranger that is a pleasant moment, a well-crafted paragraph for a client that is sweetly satisfying, contentment when one of sons calls with good news.
In The Atlantic article, “Meaning is Healthier Than Happiness,” Emily Esfahani Smith explores the associations between health and meaning. She references a psychological study that “challenges” assumptions that the happier we are, the healthier we are. The study:
… specifically explored the difference between a meaningful life and a happy life.
Surprising to some (perhaps), she continues:
the researchers, who looked at a large sample of people over a month-long period, found that happiness is associated with selfish “taking” behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless “giving” behavior.
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life… ” the authors of the study wrote. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.” While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way.
Can Meaning Mean Health?
Ms. Smith explicitly addresses research into the health effects associated with seeking meaning, and comparisons of immune responses in people who are oriented toward “empty positive emotions” rather than those we think of as associated with meaning.
This leads me to wonder about those who live with adversity (and its deleterious impacts on our health), who nonetheless experience the positive benefits of a sustained sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. This could be anyone of us, couldn’t it? Whether we’re talking about volunteering in a community organization, working toward a cure for cancer, or any number of unsung but significant accomplishments like raising decent kids in a difficult world.
Shouldn’t we be reconsidering our preoccupation with happiness, and recognizing that well-being is more complex, not to mention directly and indirectly dependent on others?
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