Can Money Buy Happiness?

Personal Snapshots
Forecasts & Strategies
April 2002

“I’m tired of Love: I’m still more tired of Rhyme. But Money gives me pleasure all the time.” —Hilaire Belloc

I came across a very interesting book the other day called Happiness and Economics: How the Economy and Institutions Affect Human Well-Being (Princeton University Press, 2002), by Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer. It’s a very academic book, with lots of graphs and mathematical regressions, but the conclusions are pretty clear: “The general result seems to be that happiness and income are indeed positively related.” In other words, money can provide many benefits—more opportunities, higher status in society, the ability to travel, enjoy better food, housing, health care and entertainment, etc.

I remember the day I discovered that I would be financially independent. It was a summer day in the 1970s when I came home and presented my wife with more than a dozen checks from a mail-order business I had started. Within a year, we had bought our first home, with 20% down, and by 1984, we had become successful enough that we could move our entire family (with four children) to the Bahamas to “retire.” The experience of becoming financially secure gave Jo Ann and me an incredible feeling of satisfaction.

The graph shows the relationship between income and happiness across nations. In general, people in poor countries are less satisfied than people in rich countries. One reason is that poor nations are often more subject to violence and uncertainty. “Countries with higher per capita incomes tend to have more stable democracies than poor countries have…. The higher the income, then the more secure human rights are, the better average health is, and the more equal the distribution of income is. Thus, human rights, health and distributional equality may seemingly make happiness rise with income.”

But the graph also indicates that more money provides diminishing returns in happiness. Subjective well-being rises with income, but once beyond a certain threshold, income has little or no effect on happiness. That’s why many wealthy people are not any happier than middle-class people. In fact, some wealthy people are downright unhappy.

Four Elements of Happiness

I once read a sermon by a church leader on the “Four Sources of Happiness.” He spoke of work, recreation, love and worship. I think he’s right. You have to find rewarding and honest employment to be happy. Unemployed people, not contributing to society or themselves, are generally unhappy. At the same time, people who spend too much time at the office and can’t relax with their family or friends at home need to learn the joy of recreation with a hobby, sports, travel or other avocation. Some of my most memorable times have been at a county softball game or a pick-up game of basketball with my kids or friends.

Love and friendship are also key elements of happiness. Everyone needs someone to confide in, to spend time with, to learn from, to reminisce with, to love and be loved. For most people, love and friendship take time and effort. You have to work at developing friendships, but the rewards are never-ending.

Finally, worship. Developing one’s spiritual side is essential to happiness. Some of my friends say they don’t need religion, but they are missing out on one of the joys of life—listening to a great sermon, singing hymns, meditating on the word of God and praying for God’s help.

In short, there’s more to life than doubling your money on a hot stock (although that, too, gives a lot of pleasure).

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