Money Buys Happiness?


Hannah Browne, Reporter

Zip lining through the rainforest in Costa Rica over Christmas break, I felt like privileged royalty, soaring over trees, rivers, and lush tropical vegetation, in the same airspace as macaws and toucans. The trip was a Christmas gift, a very expensive one.

I was the happiest I had been in awhile, free from homework, finals, and the daily social media grind. It gave me pause to wonder: do you need money to make you happy? After all, this expensive vacation did.

Money is a complicated subject. Take Presentation, for example. Our student body is very diverse, ethnically and financially. Some people are on scholarship, while others pay full price. While the latest UGG boots, jackets and jewelry appear after holiday seasons, some daily outfits never change, staying consistently traditional and economical.

Does it matter? Does all that “stuff” make someone happy? Experts have weighed in on the subject for years.  

For some, money is a means of achieving social status. Houses, cars, clothes, and jewelry give an outward appearance of success, which can provide an elevated sense of self worth compared to peers. There is happiness, for a while anyway, until you want more because the girl next door has something better than you do. Thus, happiness is only temporary.

The clue to this phenomenon is that people are generally never satisfied. Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College says, “We always think if we just had a little bit more money, we’d be happier, but when we get there, we’re not.” It’s like running a marathon that has no finish line.

Studies have shown that as soon as basic needs are met, such as food, shelter, and medical care, more happiness is not achieved by buying more stuff. “Once you get basic human needs met, a lot more money doesn’t make a lot more happiness,” notes Dan Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the author of Stumbling on Happiness.

In fact, making a lot more money usually involves a job that requires significantly longer hours, either at the job or on the road commuting. Ask any commuter in the Bay Area who sits in traffic three to four hours a day if they are happy, and you will hear an exasperated, “No.” They will also tell you that no one is watching their big new television at home.

In fact, studies have found a magic income number at which happiness is achieved and then wanes measurably afterward. According to the Wall Street Journal, “As people earn more money, their day-to-day happiness rises. Until you hit $75,000. After that, it is just more stuff, with no gain in happiness.”

The day-to-day mood of a person doesn’t change at higher income levels. Mood is defined as “the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.” Mood tends to level out at $75,000.

A person may think their life is more noteworthy upon autobiographical reflection because they make more than $75,000, especially in comparison to others, but those thoughts don’t translate to increased happiness.

So why doesn’t happiness change after the magic income number is achieved? More money simply cannot buy the things that increase happiness. Friends, family and life experiences are at the top of the list as well as avoiding illness.

Having a group of friends, big or small, and investing time in those relationships proves to bring the warm glow of contentment that money can’t buy. A loving, supportive family can rock the happiness meter as well.

Which brings us back to the vacation. The expensive trip to Costa Rica was nice, but after reflection, I realized it wasn’t the expensive trip that made me happy. It was the uninterrupted time I got to spend with my two favorite people, on a brief respite from our so-called normal life.

That is happiness, and it does not have a dollar sign.