Happiness and money

Happiness and money

Count your blessings – and your money

8/18/2007 7:55:58 AM

I’d be the last person to tell you that money can buy happiness, but I’m fascinated by recent reports insisting that money isn’t a major factor in whether or not people are happy.


Positive psychology (that’s what academicians call the study of human happiness) is a hot field of research, and the folks at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania have come up with an interesting questionnaire that’s been getting a lot of press (www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu).

Yet nowhere in the 24-question Authentic Happiness Inventory does the issue of money — or, more important, our desire for financial security — merit a mention.

A conspicuous omission

Given how expensive our lives are, how can money not be a factor? We have huge mortgages and tapped-out home equity lines of credit weighing on us. College tuition bills have never been more daunting. Our employers are less likely to give us a defined-benefit pension, so the onus is on us — and our 401(k)s — to figure out how we’ll be able to afford retirement. If we’re lucky enough to get health insurance through our employer, the trend is for each of us to be responsible for a greater portion of the bill.

I wish authentic happiness was achievable solely from the richness of relationships, but I’m a realist. And the reality I see — and that so many of you write to me about — is one in which money plays into our ability to be truly happy.

Yes, I’ve heard about the study of lottery winners that showed they were not relatively happier than those who hadn’t won the lottery, and the one reporting that folks on the Forbes 100 list (the wealthiest people alive) weren’t much happier than the average American.

Those studies show that being filthy rich doesn’t ensure happiness, but that’s not something most of us have to contend with.

I’m talking about how your happiness is affected when you’re worried about how you’ll pay the bills at the end of the month, save for the future and be able to afford to retire. In other words, how you’ll make ends meet. When those worries are your reality, I think it’s ridiculously hard to be authentically happy.

Income-sensitive happiness

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so. A survey conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center reports that, overall, just 34 percent of respondents are very happy.

But when you start to slice the findings by income, it gets interesting: 49 percent of respondents with an annual family income above $100,000 say they are very happy. When income falls between $75,000 and $100,000, the very-happy contingent falls to 38 percent. Just 24 percent of those with incomes below $30,000 said they were very happy.

I’m in no way saying that money is all that matters. But I’m so tired of how scared everyone is to admit that money does make a difference in the quality of our lives.

A family affair

Most of you would probably say that what makes you truly happy is your family and the love you share in your relationships, and I couldn’t agree more. But money comes into play in those relationships, too.

When I talk about money this way to a group, invariably someone comes up to me afterward and says, ‘suze, you are so wrong. Money isn’t the key to life, this is!” At which point her wallet flies open, and she shows me a photo of her family.

That’s when I start asking her questions: Did you take that photo with your own camera? It looks like a beautiful beach — was the photo taken on a family vacation? Are those braces I see on the two teenagers? Do you want to help those kids go to college?

As her head bobs in successive “yes” nods, I ask her how she provides all of that for her family. That’s when she understands what I’m saying.

Richer, but not happier

Without meaningful relationships, there’s no chance of ever being truly, authentically happy. But money does have a place at the table. If you don’t have money to buy things, you’re going to be very frustrated. It’s just that simple.

How we handle the money we have also plays into our happiness. The Pew survey points out that over the past few decades, the percentage of Americans who say they’re happy hasn’t changed much (it hovers at around one-third of the population), while at the same time the average per capita income has doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars. So we have more money, but we’re not much happier on average.

A paradox? Far from it. My sense is that we while we’re making more money, we aren’t making more of the money we make. We have a ton of debt, and we have to worry about saving for retirement in a way that our parents and grandparents never did. And as many of you know, it’s really hard to boost your happiness quotient when you’ve got a lot of money worries.

Suze Orman