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Does Money Buy Happiness? Depends on How You Look at It

If you've ever teetered back and forth trying to figure out whether money could buy you happiness or not, then you're not alone. Choosing a career can often seem like a trade-off between wealth and happiness. Do you take the higher paying job and sacrifice time with your family, or do you choose the job that allows you more freedom and flexibility but warrants a smaller paycheck? See if your answer changes after reading what research has to say about the money-happiness argument.

If you’ve ever teetered back and forth trying to figure out whether money could buy you happiness or not, then you’re not alone. Choosing a career can often seem like a trade-off between wealth and happiness. Do you take the higher paying job and sacrifice time with your family, or do you choose the job that allows you more freedom and flexibility but warrants a smaller paycheck? See if your answer changes after reading what research has to say about the money-happiness argument.

money happiness

(Photo Credit: giumaiolini/Flickr)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, or even wanting nice things, because that’s your prerogative – but where does it end? We live in a society where we’re always striving to attain bigger and better, saying things like, “When I have this…” or “When I make more money…” and we forget to live in the present and be content with what we have now. However, when we ultimately reach our goal of buying this or that, or earning more money, we become accustomed to it and take it for granted, and then we want more. We’re insatiable and impulsive creatures when it comes to money and success, and we mistakenly believe that the more money we have, the happier we will be. I think we have it all wrong, folks.

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Possessions vs. Experiences

We tend to choose materialistic things over experiences (e.g. traveling) because, in our heads, the material possession will physically last longer, whereas the experience will be fleeting. However, a growing body of research shows that we may be wrong in our thinking.

Cornell University professor, Thomas Gilovich, says the problem is, “We adapt to our material goods,” so, in the end, the thrill is short-lived after we have them in our possession. Then, the cycle repeats over and over again as we continue to try and buy our happiness through material possessions.

Fantasy vs. Reality

There’s also a common misconception that if you have an impressive corporate job that makes loads of money, then you can buy big fancy things and live a lavish lifestyle that will bring immense happiness to you and your family. That may be true temporarily, but you may be confusing the thrill of it all with long-lasting happiness.

A 2010 Princeton study found that “your emotional well-being – or the pleasure you derive from day-to-day experiences – doesn’t get any better after your household is earning roughly $75,000,” writes Kevin Short at The Huffington Post. “That said, a term they call ‘life evaluation’ – or how you feel about your life and accomplishments – can continue to rise with higher income and education levels.”

Once you hit that $75,000 threshold, in other words, you may feel more proud of your accomplishments in life, but you won’t necessarily feel happier on a daily basis.

Economist Justin Wolfers begs to differ.

“Wealthier people are happier than poor people. Wealthier countries are happier than poor countries. As countries get richer, they get happier,” Wolfers says in an interview with Time.

His argument isn’t that money makes people happier – because he admits, “I don’t know if it’s the money that’s making them happy” – he’s simply arguing that the “relationship between income and happiness is extremely strong.” In other words, the correlation between wealth and happiness doesn’t mean that more money causes more happiness, or vice versa.

Them vs. You

Regardless of whether you think money can or can’t buy you happiness, the focus should be on what happiness and success look like for you, not what it looks like for everyone else. It’s easy to generalize what being successful looks like when you’re basing your opinions on what the media portrays, or, even worse, what you see on social media, because it’s usually a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

One way to find happiness in your life is to find a career that is meaningful, because research shows that today’s professionals prefer a career that is fulfilling over one that pays well. Before you choose a career for money over happiness, consider what really makes people love their jobs, because you may be pleasantly surprised. (Spoiler alert: it’s not money.)

I’m not saying ditch your dreams of wanting a high-paying job, because there are plenty of meaningful and rewarding jobs that are also lucrative. I’m simply suggesting that you take a step back from the hype and reevaluate how you see success, because the last thing you want to realize at the end of your career is that you were busy chasing someone else’s dream and not your own.

Tell Us What You Think

What does happiness look like for you, in life and in your career? Share your thoughts with our community on Twitter, or leave a comment below. 

Leah Arnold-Smeets
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