Can money buy happiness?

Everyone always says that money can’t buy happiness. I’ve always liked to say that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy relief from certain types of misery. Perhaps an example will be helpful.

Every time I fly commercially, about the time I’m shuffling through security with my shoes in one hand and my recently-torn-apart bag in my other, I think about the indescribable joy that private air travel would be. My feeling escalates as I’m herded onto a plane that is probably older than I am, and sit down between two enormous women who both have toddlers that are vying for the title of the World’s Most Annoying Child. By the time the beverage cart creaks by at the express speed of .00756 mph and the Flight Attendant informs me that the last of the orange juice was just given to the grubby little urchin screaming his head off next to me, I’m ready to kidnap the little bugger and sell him on the black market to finance the purchase of my jet.

Relax, I’m not in the business of peddling children. Yet.

Anyway, the point is that flying commercially is miserable. Absolutely terrible. Could money buy relief from that? Certainly.

However, even I’m willing to admit that this is a rather unproductive example. Most people will never set foot on a private jet, so it’s not really a viable alternative to commercial travel.

A more representative type of misery that most people go through is financial slavery. In fact, to say that most people go through this is misleading, because the majority of us will spend most of our lives mired in financial slavery, “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” (Fight Club)

Let me give you a few examples of more common types of misery that characterize financial slavery:

  • Not being able to spend time with your family because you have to work two jobs
  • Not being able to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical care, etc for your family
  • Constantly being stressed about how you’ll pay the bills this month
  • Getting stuck in a job or city you hate because you can’t afford the risk of trying something new
  • Being a burden on someone else for financial care
  • Seeing your marriage torn apart by the stress and anxiety that money problems cause

The number one cause of divorce in America is money problems. Is divorce miserable? You betcha. It’s a special type of misery that almost always gets passed on to your kids and, if you’re lucky, your grandkids. If the number one cause of one of the most destructive forces in our society is money problems, how can people say that money can’t buy happiness?

I was pondering this today as I walked to work (yep, I walk to work. City living rocks.). In terms of deciding whether money itself buys relief from certain types of misery, the relevant question becomes this: For most of the people experiencing the types of financial misery that I described above, would more money really solve the problem? I think that in most cases the answer is no. Let me explain.

It’s always helped me to think about money not simply as as solution to problems, but as a multiplier of both problems and solutions. If you’re responsible and able effect positive changes with a little money, you’ll likely be responsible and able to effect even greater positive changes with more money. Conversely, if you’re unable to manage small amounts of money without getting in over your head, and you’re constantly thinking that if you just had more money, your problems would be solved, then the reality probably is that more money would only exacerbate your financial problems in the long term. We need only look at Lotto winners, a high percentage of which are bankrupt within a decade of their winnings. Here’s a great article from MSN Money about the subject.

The point is, if you’re not responsible with a little money, you aren’t going to suddenly become responsible with a lot. I think I’m going to have to revise my saying to be the following:

“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy temporary relief from certain types of financial misery. However, unless the root cause of that financial misery is dealt with properly, the end result of injecting money into the situation is often worse than the problem was to begin with. Ultimately, the only long-lasting paths to relief for financial misery are death, an infinite supply of cash, or learning proper financial stewardship. Your call.”

Hmmm…definitely not as catchy.