- Money cannot buy you happiness.
- Money may not buy happiness, but it will buy things that make you happy.
- The more money you have, the happier you are.
- Seeking wealth, status, or image undermines interpersonal relationships and connectedness to others.
- Pursuing money or other materialistic values results in feeling pressured and controlled.
Did you answer True to #1? Most of us have held a programmed value since childhood that money doesn’t buy us happiness. If it did, we reason, we wouldn’t see rich people with substance abuse issues, struggling with their weight, or defending themselves in court against character or behavior accusations.
Ironically, I find that people also answer True to statements #2 and #3. Despite believing that money cannot buy happiness, they believe that money can buy things that make us happy and that the more we have, the better off we are. But that isn’t logical. If money doesn’t buy you happiness, how can having more money buy you happiness?
Research supports the notion that money and happiness are related, but not in the way you might think. If it were true that money buys the things that make us happy and that the more we have the happier we are, then we would expect happiness scales to increase when per capita wealth increases. But that isn’t the case in the United States or any other country in the world. Pursuing and achieving material wealth may increase short-term mood, but it does not increase one’s sustainable happiness.* Both statements #2 and #3 are False.
Not only does money not buy happiness or the things that make you happy, but the more that materialistic values are at the center of your life, the more the quality of your life is diminished. This lower quality of life is reflected in a variety of measures including low energy, anxiety, substance abuse, negative emotion, depression, and likelihood to engage in high-risk behaviors.
The Problem with More
Interestingly, when individuals are asked what level of wealth they need to be happy, both the poor and the rich respond with relative amounts of “more.” No matter how much you have, you always want more—more money, belongings, toys, status, power, or image. But here’s the thing: No amount of riches will buy security, safety, trust, friendship, loyalty, a longer life, or peace of mind. Moreover, thinking you can buy these things destroys any real chance of experiencing them.
Therein lies the problem. We’ve been programmed to believe that our well-being depends on the quantity of what we have. There is a current TV commercial where a little girl tries to explain why more is always better—which is the message the advertiser is trying to convey because that’s what they are offering you—more. The irony is that the little girl simply cannot explain why more is better. It really is funny. But it disproves the very point the advertiser is hoping to make. More is not always better—it is simply a belief that most of us have yet to challenge.
Quality Over Quantity
What if we were to turn the table and focus on quality over quantity? Consider your answer to statement #4. Did you answer it True? One of our most basic and crucial human needs is for relatedness with others. This longing for connectedness is obvious in the explosion of social media and online dating services. The lack of relatedness is detrimental to everything including the quality of our physical and mental health. Research indicates that relatedness is thwarted by the pursuit of materialism.* Yet we rarely link materialistic values and goals to the undermining of interpersonal relationships that influence the quality of our life.
Statement #5 is also True. If you follow any of the popular culture regarding the effects of extrinsic motivation, or what we call suboptimal Motivational Outlooks, you understand the negative impact that feeling pressure or control has on creativity, discretionary effort, and sustained high productivity and performance. And yet, organizations are hesitant to generate alternatives to pay-for-performance schemes and incentivizing behavior, despite the proof that those systems based on materialistic values generate the pressure and control that undermine the quality of our work experience—and our results.
Our Values Shape Us
And here is a great sadness. When you operate from materialistic values, it not only undermines your well-being, it also negatively affects the health and well-being of others. When our focus is on material pursuits, we become less compassionate and empathetic. Our values shape the way we work, play, live, and make decisions. And those decisions impact the world around us.*
Each of us has an amazing opportunity with the understanding gained through recent research and the evolution of human spirit. We can shift our focus from the value of materialism to the more empowering values of acceptance, compassion, emotional intimacy, caring for the welfare of others, and contributing to the world around us. Not only will this shift in focus improve the quality of our own lives, it will also create a ripple effect that ultimately will improve the quality of life for others. For the reality is that the most important things in life cannot be bought. Indeed, they are priceless.
* For supporting research and more information on this topic, I highly recommend the following resources:
- The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
- The Handbook of Self-Determination Theory Research by Deci and Ryan
- The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
- Website: www.selfdeterminationtheory.org
About the author:
Susan Fowler is one of the principal authors—together with David Facer and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop. Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.