As this blog has matured, several topics have emerged as recurring themes, one being the relationship of money and happiness. I've touched upon this in various posts, but since it's such a contentious topic, it requires constant revisiting. Oftentimes old truths only click when we hear them at the right time. Perhaps that right time for you is now.
For today's post, I thought I'd take a different approach by responding to an article written by Grant Sabatier titled "Money & Happiness". Grant is the creator of an online blog Millennial Money and has grown a rather large following of folks interested in learning about personal finance.
Rather than my normal approach of writing an article with just my thoughts, I figured it could be useful to include widespread, widely shared beliefs about money and happiness, and respond to those individually with my thoughts as they relate to this blog.
So below, you'll find Grant's article in normal text, with my responses to his statements in bold blue italics. I hope you enjoy, and I'm really curious to hear your responses to my responses!
MONEY & HAPPINESS
by Grant Sabatier
(with my responses in bold italics)
What is your earliest memory of being happy?
Do you remember that feeling being a kid on a warm summer night, the grass under your bare feet, and the freeing feeling of not having to go to school the next day?
For me, being happy is being free like on those summer nights.
We all want to be happy. It’s a full feeling. A feeling that connects us with others and deep into ourselves. Physiologically it’s pretty easy to understand – a chemical reaction happens in our brain, serotonin is released, and boom we feel great. Emotionally and spiritually it’s more complex.
Good - he's acknowledging that happiness is a feeling we experience within, and one that we all seek. As I always say, we're all just trying to be okay. He even includes some of the neurochemistry around happiness.
But how does money impact your happiness?
Studies show that the correlation between your salary’s impact on your happiness up to $75,000, and then it peaks at $125,000. Meaning that people are increasingly happy until they make $125,000 and then they plateau. This may be true for the participants in that study, but it’s not true for me and I am sure it’s not true for a lot of people.
SO CAN MONEY BUY HAPPINESS?
Definitely. Money can make you happier when you look at the simple fact that when we make money it makes us happy and when we have experiences and purchase things, using money – it can make us happy.
Now he's going down a slippery slope. To make a blanket statement like "money can definitely buy happiness" is sending the wrong message, especially when his reason is that "when we make money it makes us happy..." and "purchasing things makes us happy." But it's still early, so let's keep reading.
But it’s not that simple, as you can see below. There are an infinite number of stories of people who have made a ton of money but are miserable. The same goes for people who have very little, but still, find joy in their lives. You don’t need money to be happy, but it can make you happier.
But then he catches himself and clarifies the reality of things - that there are plenty of extremely financially wealthy people who are miserable, and plenty of financially poor people who live content lives.
Earning more, saving more, and investing more will help you lead a richer life. And a richer life will make you happier. Happiness is personal.
No, happiness is not personal. What he's saying is that the triggers to happiness are personal. He's saying that money buys triggers. I'll give him that. I'm saying, the whole problem is that we think we need triggers in the first place. This is called conditional happiness.
”If you are already a happy person, then money can amplify your happiness.”
This is a good point. The saying, "more money just makes you more of who you are" is accurate. The point being, it won't change you. It'll only give you more resources with which to amplify your behavior.
If you aren’t already happy, then money can only provide a temporary escape from you [sic] inner well-being.
True, so why did he just say money could buy happiness? This seems to contradict what he said above.
For a different perspective, we recently recorded a Millennial Money podcast episode on the topic of money and happiness.
The more money I’ve made in my life, honestly, the happier I’ve gotten – but the money is only one factor – the means. The reason I am happier is because I have more control over my time. This means I can spend more time doing things I love, spending time with people that I love, and well, doing things that make me happy. You can actually use the money to maximize your happiness when you know how to use it.
If you pay attention to what he's saying, he's stating that money gives him more means with which to exercise his apparent control over the world. In other words, he has more money to keep situations around him at bay so that they don't enter his inner world and disturb him too much. This is not happiness. This is called control issues. And we all have them.
You see, as we move through life, our minds create a blueprint of how things ought to be so that we're okay, or in this case, happy. This is the model into which everything and everybody need to fit, just right, or else we're disturbed. He's just saying money gives you greater ability to uphold this model.
The problem with this is, it's the opposite of freedom. Your whole life becomes about protecting this model at all costs. That's why so many of us have this erroneous notion that we have to fight with life, that life is always a struggle. It's only a struggle because we're trying to impose our willpower on reality to make things happen, so that we can feel okay, all because we're not okay in the first place.
WHY MONEY CAN MAKE YOU HAPPY
Here are the biggest [sic] making more money can make you happier:
Less worry and stress If you were once stressed about not having money, once you have it you'll just be stressed about maintaining it, growing it, and not losing it. Money is not the cause of stress. Resisting reality is.
Freedom The only true freedom is within. Using money as a reason for your freedom, by definition, implies you're not free, and won't be when you have it.
More control over your time The only reason you'd want more control over your time is to control the people, places, and things around you so they adhere to your model of how the world should be.
More extraordinary experiences It's dangerous to think that extraordinary experiences can't be had in our every day lives. To think that we need money to have extraordinary experiences is completely backwards, and again, the opposite of freedom. What about the smile of your baby? What about the soft touch of your partner? Is that not extraordinary?
The opportunity to give back If what's preventing you from serving humanity is a lack of money, this means you're missing endless opportunities to serve the moments unfolding in front of you, which is all you ever have.
To understand how money can make you happier at a deeper level, I think we should look at two different types of happiness – short term and long term.
Short-term happiness comes from finding your flow state.
You know that feeling when you’re sitting on the beach with a cold beer and feel one with the world? What about the feeling you get after seeing your favorite DJ or band and walking out into the crisp air after the show? What about the feeling you get when you’re in such a good conversation time disappears? Or maybe it’s how you feel when you buy that new handbag or a new truck?
In other words, he's talking about complete presence, when the mind quiets down and we are one with the moment unfolding in front of us.
That’s your flow state. When you are happy. Finding your flow state will make you happy, but it’s still fleeting. One way to maximize your happiness is to find your flow state every day, or as often as you can. It’s about doing things you love. This is the most beneficial form of short term happiness.
It's true that you'll experience more joy as you enter the present moment. The writer here lists off several experiences that likely trigger this flow state within him. But remember, we don't get to decide what life throws at us. Suggesting we do things we love is great, but if we can only find joy in the things we love, we tend to miss out on a whole lot more of life.
We can still be completely present to witness the not-so-comfortable stuff too. Death, loss, grief, sadness - these are all perfectly normal notes that our hearts play. Why can't we learn to be present to experience them as they come and go?
Unfortunately, so much of American culture has linked happiness with consumption – this is why we feel happy, albeit temporarily when we buy stuff. But that happiness rarely lasts. It’s surface level.
Making more money can open up more time and the freedom to experience your flow state. Money is freedom, as long as you have control over how you use it.
Again, if you need money to be able to experience your flow state, doesn't this beg the question why? Shouldn't you spend some time figuring out why your ability to enter your flow state is dependent on a certain dollar amount?
Long-term happiness comes from finding purpose and exploring your passions
It’s pretty easy to go out and buy short-term happiness, but long-term happiness needs to be cultivated.
What he's saying is, it's easy to buy something that triggers a feeling of joy or presence within us. And yes, it's true, long-term happiness ought to be cultivated, but not through more money and therefore more experiences. Instead, it's an inner game. It starts and stops with your experience within.
As humans, we all essentially seek and require the same things to live a happy life – community, loyalty, love, excitement, curiosity, passion, and peace. To explore more on how to live a fulfilled life check out Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
By the way, Maslow's needs are based on psychological needs, whereas the spirit - the essence of who we are - doesn't have needs.
At its core living a happy life means having more fun, richer, more meaningful experiences. It also means living a life full of meaning, passion, and purpose.
The more money I have made, the more time it’s freed up for me to following my true passions – like Millennial Money, where I share my passion for helping others with their personal finances. I also get to spend more time traveling the world with my wife, more time with friends, and more time exploring other projects the fulfill me. This makes me happy.
Yes, it makes the author happy, but what he doesn't realize is that his whole life now needs to revolve around making sure the structure of his finances, his wife, his ability to travel, his ability to spend time with friends, and time to explore other projects, all remain within his control. If not, he won't be happy. He doesn't explicitly state that, but is that not what he's implying?
I know that my long term happiness has less to do with making money and more to exploring the freedom and connections it provides. I’ve made a lot of money mistakes and it took me awhile to learn this. Money can only make you happy if you also work on other areas of your life.
I feel very blessed and lucky.
I know that my success is not directly a result of hard work – it is more a result of building good habits, maximizing my value, and of course the luck of an insane bull market over the past 7 years. I truly believe that most people can escape living paycheck to paycheck and use money to live richer and happier lives.
Overall, I hope you realize that I'm never saying there's anything wrong with money, or this author's approach to life. The last thing I aim to do is judge. I'm simply stating that when your happiness is conditional to a dollar amount, then when you get the money, by definition, that is not freedom. You're already free! You just need to stop buying into the garbage that money buys happiness, or has any correlation whatsoever to your well-being. Needing money for joy is the opposite of freedom. It's being a slave to external conditions.
Live with substance!