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You Can’t Buy Happiness, So Why Do We Keep Trying?

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By Beau Black

We’ve all heard it said that money can’t buy happiness, but are you sure? Our society, culture, and economy together push the idea of buying things to bolster our mood and self-esteem, a message we’re often bombarded with. You could argue that several industries actually owe their existence to this pursuit (luxury goods, anyone?). But beyond the immediate charge of the purchase, it appears that, no, buying more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. So, why do we keep trying?

Nineteenth century economist Thorstein Veblen wrote about our drive to spend money to one-up our neighbors, which he termed, “conspicuous consumption.” His Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, critiques the wasteful, competitive, and (in his view) pointless spending of the “leisure class.” He calls the constant buying of goods to outdo our peers “pecuniary emulation.” Today, we call it “keeping up with the Joneses,” though it’s more like beating the Joneses.

There’s always a newer, nicer car, gadget, appliance, accessory, or other apparel item somewhere on our block, and there always will be.

Though there may be some satisfaction derived from purchasing things that we want, buying as a competitive sport is ultimately an unsatisfying pursuit. There’s always a newer, nicer car, gadget, appliance, accessory, or other apparel item somewhere on our block, and there always will be.

Piyush Modak of TerminalNets.com suggests that money is a tool that can solve life’s problems, and if used properly, can also have an effect on your happiness. Making more money can make aspects of life easier: Not having to worry about your rent, mortgage, or car payment would be a welcome relief for many of us. As would the freedom to take an amazing vacation, or enjoy a nice meal out.

However, even though money can help you in many ways, Modak says, “Money is not going to take you to your happiness for different reasons.” If we stopped there, we’d probably find being content much easier. But most of us don’t, and collectively, we continually expand our list of “necessities” to absorb more and more of what were formerly “luxuries.” For example, car features that once were high-end — like heated seats, navigation systems, and Bluetooth compatibility — are now as common as power windows and door locks. They do make us more comfortable. But the drive to keep up can be exhausting, and it keeps our self-worth on precarious footing.

The Promise and Potential Peril of Instant Wealth

While exploring the notion that money can’t buy happiness, there was an interesting case study done on the plight of many lottery winners. Following them offered an interesting look at how overnight wealth — which many of us fantasize about — failed to help achieve happiness or success. In fact, CNBC reported that lottery winners are more likely than the average American to declare bankruptcy. “Instead of getting people out of financial trouble, winning the lottery got people into more trouble, since bankruptcy rates soared for lottery winners three to five years after winning,” says economist and U.S. News & World Report writer Jay Zagorsky.

Mentally healthy people don’t have to buy things to fill a void.

An older study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that winning a lottery jackpot actually lessened the winners’ enjoyment of everyday activities, and that the winners were not happier on balance than the study’s control group.

“Winning a $20 million lottery ticket won’t make you happier,” says Harvard Medical School professor Sanjiv Chopra in The Washington Post. Chopra cited research showing that happiness fluctuates in the short run with positive or negative changes in circumstances. However, over time, people tend to revert to their own happiness “set point,” regardless of finances.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But …

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So, if simply buying more stuff will not make us happy, what will? For starters:

  • Money can buy experiences. And experiences and the freedom to pursue them can improve our quality of life.
  • The things that bring us lasting happiness tend to be relational, whether it’s time with family, good friends, our significant other, or spouse. Enjoying special experiences and not-so-special experiences with loved ones can be incredibly rich.
  • Even pets can significantly impact how we experience life, much more so than the pursuit of things.

Being content isn’t grounded in accumulation. Instead, it’s rooted in experiences and relationships and freedoms (and to a lesser extent, purchases) that make our lives better, more comfortable, more vivid.

Something of a countercultural movement has cropped up around the “experiences over stuff” mindset. It’s sparked events like Buy Nothing Day (which coincides with Black Friday each year), and outdoor adventure supplier REI’s #OptOutside. This campaign has the chain closing its stores on Thanksgiving day, and remarkably, Black Friday, for seven years now. Instead, the retailer encourages its employees and customers to spend time with family and friends. Interestingly, more retailers seem to be following suit. Maybe they’re onto something?

Need Help Finding Your Happiness?

Essentially, a solid foundation for healthy self-worth includes genuine, caring relationships, fulfilling work, a sense of accomplishment, and financial security, not necessarily financial excess. Mentally healthy people don’t have to buy things to fill a void. They know that doesn’t ultimately work beyond an immediate thrill. If you are struggling to find true happiness in your life and would like help, we at The Meadows Malibu are here for you. Reach out today to learn more and take a first step toward healing and wellness. You are worth it.