Cultural Wisdom: Money Doesn’t Make You Rich Or Happy… Ever

Photo credit: Ron Hansen,

“I’d Have All the Money in the World”

We’ve all imagined what we might do if we were filthy rich. We’d spend our days flitting off to private islands on private jets, wear designer clothes, own a fleet of Teslas, have the latest tech toys, and live in the lap of luxury. Of course, we’d also donate generously to charity and do our best to give back. But would all of that money make you happy?

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Happiness can actually refer to two distinctive states:

1) Your immediate mood and…

2) Your overall sense of well-being…

Happiness, as it refers to your immediate mood, is just like any other fleeting emotion — anger, excitement, frustration — and is influenced by those little day-to-day things that happen. You found a parking space and you’re happy! You ate a cupcake and you’re happy! When it comes to your overall sense of well-being, happiness refers to a sense of satisfaction or contentment. You have a great family, a great spouse, a steady job, and generally, you’re happy.

Money might make a small difference in your immediate mood, but unfortunately, it’s not long-lasting. Found 20 bucks? You’ll be happy…until someone cuts in front of you in traffic. Mood happiness has more to do with your temperament and outlook on life. If you’re generally an optimist, you’ll probably appreciate the little things and find more reasons to be happy than a pessimist who is looking for the downside of a situation. If you generally have what some call a “more realistic worldview,” you may not be as easily boosted by life’s day-to-day events, including those related to money.

How Satisfying is Money?

So, if it doesn’t really affect your immediate mood, does money make you happy when it comes to your overall life satisfaction? Research has shown that it can, but only to a certain degree. A study conducted by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School in 2010 showed that an annual salary of $75,000 was the happiness threshold. The farther beneath that threshold people fell, the less happy they reported feeling. However, people who made more than $75,000 — be it $100,000 or $500,000 — didn’t report feeling any happier.

According to Princeton’s findings, it wasn’t the money itself that accounted for personal happiness, but having less money made people feel more disheartened by their problems. Think of it this way: say you make $50,000 a year and have two children. You might be constantly worried about how you’re going to pay for basic expenses like groceries and electricity, not to mention extras like your children’s little league equipment or birthday parties. The constant worry puts you under perpetual stress which decreases your feelings of life satisfaction. Then, when something else comes up, from a minor car accident to a major divorce, you may feel less capable of dealing with the additional stress.

What, Then, are Riches?

Once money has made you sufficiently comfortable and you’re not constantly burdened by financial concerns, anecdotal evidence suggests that it takes more than money to make you happy. Instead, good relationships, health, a life purpose, and hope, all have an impact on the levels of happiness that people report feeling.

In the documentary Happy, director Roko Belic traveled around the world in an effort to find out what influences our feelings of satisfaction with our lives. In addition to interviewing a number of psychologists, he spoke with hundreds of people and found that the happiest weren’t those living in mansions or driving a Porsche. Some of the happiest people lived in huts, surrounded by loved ones and felt a sense of purpose in their work and their communities. Eric Weiner reported similar conclusions in his book, The Geography of Bliss, finding that those with strong ties to their culture and faith reported higher levels of happiness, while those without connection or hope were the unhappiest.

While it’s easy to look at the lives of the rich and famous and feel envious, it might not be the money that we really envy. Sure, Tom Brady is rich, but you’re probably more envious that he’s able to pursue his passion and has been exceptionally successful at doing so. Would it be great to be Elon Musk? Probably, but you might find that having his drive and vision is more rewarding than having his mansion.

Once you’ve achieved a basic level of financial security, it seems that money becomes just one more thing you take for granted — like that brand new appliance or gadget you just had to have that soon becomes eclipsed by the newest, latest, or greatest.

If you’re looking to boost your own happiness, you’re better off focusing on improving your relationships and pursuing meaningful work than playing the lottery or concocting a get-rich-quick scheme. Life coaching classes are a great way to enhance your communication skills for better relationships, and life coach training can also teach you how to identify meaningful goals and design strategies for accomplishing them.

You may find that your road to happiness lies in working with others… to help them discover their own golden path to a bright and fulfilling future.

Money aside, what truly makes you happy? Comment below!

Originally published at LIVE • LEAD • PLAY.