“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness isn’t spending it right.” You may remember those Lexus ads from years back, which hijacked this bumper-sticker-ready twist on the conventional wisdom to sell a car so fancy that no one would ever dream of affixing a bumper sticker to it.
What made the ads so intriguing, but also so infuriating, was that they seemed to offer a simple—if rather expensive—solution to a common question: How can you transform the money you work so hard to earn into something approaching the good life? You know that there must be some connection between money and happiness. If there weren’t, you’d be less likely to stay late at work (or even go in at all) or struggle to save money and invest it profitably. But then, why aren’t your lucrative promotion, five-bedroom house and fat 401(k) cheering you up? The relationship between money and happiness, it would appear, is more complicated than you can possibly imagine.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do the untangling yourself. Over the past quarter-century, economists and psychologists have banded together to sort out the hows, whys and why-nots of money and mood. Especially the why-nots. Why is it that the more money you have, the more you want? Why doesn’t buying the car, condo or cellphone of your dreams bring you more than momentary joy?
In attempting to answer these seemingly depressing questions, the new scholars of happiness have arrived at some insights that are, well, downright cheery. Money can help you find more happiness, so long as you know just what you can and can’t expect from it. And no, you don’t have to buy a Lexus to be happy. Much of the research suggests that seeking the good life at a store is an expensive exercise in futility. Before you can pursue happiness the right way, you need to recognize what you’ve been doing wrong.
The new science of happiness starts with a simple insight: we’re never satisfied. “We always think if we just had a little bit more money, we’d be happier,” says Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College, “but when we get there, we’re not.” Indeed, the more you make, the more you want. The more you have, the less effective it is at bringing you joy, and that seeming paradox has long bedeviled economists. “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. Some research shows that going from earning less than $20,000 a year to making more than $50,000 makes you twice as likely to be happy, yet the payoff for then surpassing $90,000 is slight. And while the rich are happier than the poor, the enormous rise in living standards over the past 50 years hasn’t made Americans happier. Why? Three reasons:
You overestimate how much pleasure you’ll get from having more. Humans are adaptable creatures, which has been a plus during assorted ice ages, plagues and wars. But that’s also why you’re never all that satisfied for long when good fortune comes your way. While earning more makes you happy in the short term, you quickly adjust to your new wealth—and everything it buys you. Yes, you get a thrill at first from shiny new cars and TV screens the size of Picasso’s Guernica. But you soon get used to them, a state of running in place that economists call the “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation.”
Even though stuff seldom brings you the satisfaction you expect, you keep returning to the mall and the car dealership in search of more. “When you imagine how much you’re going to enjoy a Porsche, what you’re imagining is the day you get it,” says Gilbert. When your new car loses its ability to make your heart go pitter-patter, he says, you tend to draw the wrong conclusions. Instead of questioning the notion that you can buy happiness on the car lot, you begin to question your choice of car. So you pin your hopes on a new BMW, only to be disappointed again.
More money can also lead to more stress. The big salary you pull in from your high-paying job may not buy you much in the way of happiness. But it can buy you a spacious house in the suburbs. Trouble is, that also means a long trip to and from work, and study after study confirms what you sense daily: even if you love your job, the little slice of everyday hell you call the commute can wear you down. You can adjust to most anything, but a stop-and-go drive or an overstuffed subway car will make you unhappy whether it’s your first day on the job or your last.