Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yeah, Money Can't Buy Happiness, But...

...it can certainly make life a lot less stressful and enjoyable. But how much of it is really required?

I got to thinking about this, given all the class-warfare-hand-wringing lately about the "rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer." Life's not only about money; after all, do you really think really rich people are "happier" than the rest of us? I don't think so. I believe the major difference in one's "happiness quotient" says more about one's ability to meet their basic needs. The problem - and the solution for those of us not "filthy rich" - is to avoid ratcheting up one's definition of "basic".

Boyle's Law says that a gas will expand to fill its container. And while our finances are certainly not subject to this physical law, we certainly act like they are. How many times after getting a new job, a fat raise, and/or a nice bonus have we gone out and splurged, bought a new car, a new house, or even a very expensive bottle of wine? Just like that expanding gas, we tend to expand our lives to fill the available financial container (and, recently, we've seen numerous cases of over-expansion well beyond that restriction...) Did all these people suddenly become happy as a result of spending that newly-available marginal income on something new? I doubt it, certainly not long-term, no more so that the number of lives that have been ultimately destroyed by winning the lottery. If "money buys happiness" then all these folks should have ended up pretty damn happy...but that's rarely the case.

But what money can buy is lowering the stress of dealing with "the basics". Everyone starts with a minimum-sized container, consisting of good health, nutritional food, clean water, adequate shelter, clothing, etc. That minimal container is the same for any human, changing only to address local environmental conditions. Money can - and does - buy those things (witness many poor countries that cannot, or do not, ensure their citizens meet those basics). Yes, in that case money would buy that level of "happiness."

But, there are basic human needs that cannot be truly purchased that lead to happiness. We are social animals and need interaction among ourselves; we need family and friends for support, other people to interact with. We also desire mental challenges and a spiritual desire to feel like we're part of this society. While money can buy proxies for these - or something that appears to be these - money truly cannot purchase them. Each of these becomes part of that basic container size.

But after that, does having a larger container - more money - buy us "happiness"? It certainly buys leisure - after all, once we over-produced what we needed we were able to stop chasing our food on the Serengti every day. Money certainly buys "security", what I would define as that buffer zone over and above the basics - hey, maybe have enough food so that we can skip hunting today. But the more and more buffer I create for myself, am I necessarily "happier"? Up to a certain point we'd like to increase that buffer, but there's diminishing returns. More likely than not, as with the new raise or winning the lottery, we simply increase the size of our personal containers and try to expand to fill it, in the Sysiphian quest for "happiness". Had we taken than new bounty and applied it to our existing container, and using the rest as a buffer, I have no doubt we'd have been a lot happier...

I suspect that the key to "happiniess" is less about how "rich" we are, and more about how we manage the size of our own containers. Trying to "keep up with the Jones" is a quick trip to failure, as that means we're not recognizing our financial limitations and staying within them. My wife and I are extremely fortunate in that we're both healthy, both well employed, have friends and family, and have financial appetites that are within our capabilities. Are we "filthy" rich? Hardly. But, I think we're happy! There are times when I try to expand our container a bit (especially through my hobbies) but I consider myself disciplined enough to note when I'm tickling the edge and then back off.

I've often thought about what I would do if I were to hit the lottery (assuming I played). I've given the same types of thoughts to career choices, wondering about how my quality of life would change were I to have a job with a significantly higher salary. In both cases it's tempting to think about buying a new car, or moving to a bigger house, or moving entirely to a location with better weather and fewer taxes. But in the end, while my container is not particularly huge, it's still pretty good; good enough for me, anyway.

GA



Inspired by NPR Planet Money podcast, "Money Buys Happiness".