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Money and Happiness

| October 15, 2012
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“Happiness resides not in possessions and gold; the feeling of happiness dwells in the soul”- Democritus 


Recently I read an article about a successful investment banker that raised some interesting questions in my mind. The article started out by saying this gentleman had made a ton of money and was successful. 

But as I read on the article said that this very successful man had been divorced three times, his daughter was in rehab, and his son was in jail. Well I don’t know about you, but this description certainly didn’t fit my definition of success and happiness. Matter of fact it sounded to me like the guy was pretty miserable.

The problem was that the reporter defined success as being very one dimensional, the major criteria being “making a ton of money.” This view by the reporter is not surprising since his biggest mistake was in believing the American Happiness myth: if I work hard, put up with a lot of stress and make tons of money, someday I will be happy.

Unfortunately, as our investment banker found out this single-minded, unbalanced approach does not work. We all know people like this who are financially successful yet are miserable. This is what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls, “miswanting,” or chasing something that we think will make us happy that doesn’t.

This idea that there are other factors that lead to happiness in addition to money got me thinking. Of course I manage money for my clients and I have learned after twenty years in the business that the main thing that most of my clients want is for me to help them make better decisions so that they can have a better quality of life in the future.

I also know from experience that most people do not know what “better quality of life” means to them and that everyone is different when it comes to that definition.

Then the thought came to me: can I better serve my clients by researching what really makes people happy to help them understand what “good quality of life” is to them? I decided that this was very important in order to bring true value to my clients and I decided to set out on this quest.

It was in the process of doing this research and working with experts in the field that I stumbled upon positive psychology, also known as the science of happiness. I was really excited by the fact that there is scientific evidence and research about what makes us happy. The following are some of the things that I learned about this fascinating topic.

There is an old saying that says money can’t buy happiness and there is another saying that says money can’t buy happiness, but it sure is way ahead of whatever’s in second place. Actually, in a funny way both of these statements have some truth to them.

This is where the new science of happiness comes in. Based on worldwide research scientists have learned that, “once we have enough money to pay for life’s basics like food, clothing, and housing, more money adds surprisingly little to our happiness.”

Martin Seligman, the past President of the American Psychological Association and the founder of the Positive Psychology movement states:

“There is certainly nothing wrong with money. In fact, if you can’t pay for life’s necessities you will be miserable. It’s what you do with your money and your life that determines your happiness and what I like to like to refer to as true wealth.”

Now we all know that earning money and receiving a big paycheck can make us happier, but Seligman goes on to say that “once the basics like food, shelter and clothing are paid for, more money creates surprisingly little increase in happiness.”

Still not convinced? Ed Diener is a leader in the positive psychology movement. He did a study of some of the richest people in the world. He surveyed some high net-worth millionaires and billionaires to rate their life satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 7, 7 being the highest in terms of life satisfaction.

Guess what? There average score was only 5.8, only slightly more than the average American. Diener also surveyed Maasai tribesman from the plains of East Africa. This tribe lives in dung huts, herds cattle for a living, have no electricity or running water and little or no money. Their score? 5.7 which is almost the same as the wealthiest people in America.

What can we conclude from all of this? Well on average, of course, money increases every aspect of our quality of life. But when looking at people’s self reports of their own happiness and making comparisons it seems that being rich does not guarantee happiness.

Of course it’s also important to point out that research has found that being poor is a sure path to misery. If having a lot of money is a one dimensional, unbalanced approach to happiness as we discussed then the question becomes what are some other qualities of happiness that research has found that offers a more balanced approach? In a future article I will explore this topic.

If you are interested in more resources on the science of happiness or if you are interested in how it can be integrated into the financial planning process feel free to contact our office.

Also, if you are looking for a fun, interactive and fast paced presentation for your group or club we are offering “Living in the Endorphin Zone.” This presentation covers the most important research in the fields of happiness, health, and positive emotions. Contact our office for details.


*Based on Steve Moeller’s “Living in the Endorphin Zone” Presentation.

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