When I first addressed this myth I received objections, so I’ll address them one by one. Choose the questions which interest you.
My main point is that is money is wonderful stuff: it can provide food and shelter and get a toothache fixed; it can provide pleasures in the form of toys, riding lessons and theatre tickets; it can help us grow by buying us an education, musical instruments and abseiling experiences; it can help charities do their work; it can increase our standard of living; it can help science deepen the breadth of knowledge . . . but it won’t bring core happiness. Core happiness comes from satisfying long-term innate needs, such as feeling safe, and feeling that we belong.
It may seem that at times I’m assuming most people want to be rich. I don’t believe that is the case. For many of us, becoming rich appeals, but that’s all. Most of us are not prepared to rearrange our lives to make it happen. We are not interested enough in being rich to go to all the trouble. We prefer to choose jobs which interest us or pay the bills. There are a few questions that assume wealth, and that’s because the question often pops up.
Many wealthy people didn’t aim to be wealthy, they just aimed to run their business well, and ended up becoming rich.
‘Wealth is a by-product of dong a good job. The satisfaction doesn’t come from having wealth but from coming up with an idea, seeing it grow and become a success.’
Graeme Wood, founder of Wotif. Fin Rev
The quotation above suggests it’s not money which brings lasting satisfaction, it’s the confidence that comes from earning it, and the knowledge that our skills are valuable and could be applied elsewhere in a new adventure. It is that self-confidence, that sense of believing in oneself, which is the gold.
Whatever the case, it is still a nagging question for many of us: ‘does money bring happiness?’
‘Show me someone who thinks that money buys happiness and I’ll show you someone who has never had a lot of money.’
David Geffen, billionaire.
Q1. Money can make us happy because it can pay for basic needs like food and shelter, and fix toothaches.
Yes, money can fix problems and prevent unhappiness. But it doesn’t add to our core happiness. It doesn’t raise our level of day-to-day wellbeing.
It’s like being vaccinated: just because we can avoid polio with a vaccination does not mean vaccinations make us happy. Vaccinations merely prevent unhappiness.
Someone who is hungry doesn’t say, ‘I’m hungry because I have no money’; they say, ‘I’m hungry because I have no food.’ Money can solve such problems. Money can buy vaccines. It can fix toothaches. It can prevent a great deal of unhappiness. But to conclude that it therefore adds to our core happiness is a mistake. It doesn’t.
Q2. ‘To be happy we need a decent standard of living, and for that we need money.
If our happiness depended on our standard of living we would be happier than people centuries ago. Those people had no access to the vast array of medicines, pleasures and comforts we have today. If they weren’t stricken with disease, or starving, or fearful of being invaded, there is no evidence to suggest they were less happy than we are.
Q3. ‘Wouldn’t someone living in luxury be happier than someone living in a hut?’
No, provided the person living in the hut was not suffering hardship and had their basic needs met.
We are good at adapting to an environment. Someone living in a hut with their needs met will, after a while, find it nothing out of the ordinary. And, someone living in palace will, after a while, find it nothing out of the ordinary. It’s called habituation.
People living luxurious lives are disadvantaged, because:
(1) when they are forced to endure ordinary circumstances (such as an economy seat on a plane) they are particularly inconvenienced.
Kahlil Gibran said of our lust for comfort: ‘. . . that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.’
(2) It’s possible some wealthy people don’t enjoy living in their huge homes because they feel isolated living in them. Being isolated makes it harder to satisfy our deep need to belong, so it hinders our core happiness.
(3) If the wealthy use their luxury home to establish their status, they are in trouble, because there will always be a better house nearby.
Habituation is one reason why some people buy a new car every two years. The thrill of a new car wears off, so to feel good again they buy another new car. Who is the more satisfied: the person who feels the need to keep updating their car, or the person content to have the same car for decades?
‘We get used to owning the new lounge suite and it becomes part of the furniture, so to speak. So we need continuous material purchases to maintain the same level of satisfaction.’
Ross Gittins, journalist.
In short, comfort and pleasures have nothing to do with core happiness. It is the emotional health of a person which determines a person’s core happiness, not their environment, and that emotional health requires the satisfaction of long-term innate needs.
If luxury did contribute to a person’s happiness, a peasant living in a hut in the cold Mongolian hills would be less happy than someone living in a Sydney mansion. Again, there is no evidence to suggest that’s the case.
‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’
3rd century BC philosopher, Epicurus.
‘Anyone living in a hut would jump at the chance to live in a proper house!’
Yes, we tend to prefer the pleasures and conveniences a proper house provides. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a hut. I love hot showers and the other benefits a house provides! But if I had to live in a hut and my basic needs were met – warmth, food, shelter – I would initially feel despondent, but after a while I would get used to my new lodgings and my core happiness would return. So would yours. Provided we aren’t suffering, we get used to our standard of living. Our core happiness doesn’t depend on it.
Q4. ‘With money we can flourish. We can enjoy fine food, quality wine, the Arts, the best the world has to offer . . .’
(1) We soon become habituated to luxuries and they don’t feel special.
(2) Pleasures don’t add to our core happiness.
Besides, I cannot see how a human being can ‘flourish’ by spending their wealth on luxuries at the expense of not helping blind people in Third World countries see again. And surely, thousands of people could flourish at the expense of one senior executive wanting to ‘flourish’ with a new yacht.
Yes, wealth can aid our ability to discern excellent wine from plonk, and to appreciate many other fine things in life, but those abilities are simply that: abilities; they don’t make the person. Just because our abilities flourish doesn’t mean we do. It’s a person we’re building, not an Arts catalogue.
Q5. ‘With money we can afford to pay for things that help us grow, such as seeing a counsellor, or abseiling courses.’
It’s the experience of abseiling which contributes to your confidence, and thus to your core happiness, not the money that paid for it. Not the car which drove you there. Not the equipment. Not the cliff you abseiled down. And, it’s the experience of seeing a counsellor that assists your growth, not the money you paid to see them. Yes, money is wonderful stuff, but it is just a means.
Besides, there are plenty of opportunities to grow as a person without the need for abseiling, or for music lessons, or education, or counselling. They’re waiting for you to grasp them. Look around.
‘But if we need to see a counsellor and can’t afford one, we can’t get our problems fixed. We will remain unhappy.’
Correct. And if we can’t afford to buy food, or to have a toothache fixed, we will also be unhappy. Money can fix problems and prevent unhappiness, but it won’t add to our core happiness.
Q6. ‘Elsewhere you said, ‘Life would be drab without pleasures’. Pleasures cost money.’
Yes, life would be drab without pleasures, but with a strong core happiness we can find pleasures in the little things of life. Are they as good skiing, or visiting an amusement park? No. But without pleasures like them your core happiness can still remain intact. However, without core happiness, all the experiences in the world will mean little to you.
Besides, we experience core happiness when we are not doing anything in particular, and let’s face it: most of the time we are not doing anything in particular. Most of the time we are not skiing, and not in an amusement park.
‘Surely lots of pleasures add up to core happiness, in the same way lots of patches make up a quilt?’
Not that I can see. A hole-in-one gives a golfer enormous pleasure, but if every shot were a hole-in-one the novelty would soon wear off. Tyrants have had their every wish fulfilled, yet weren’t euphoric.
‘Too much sunshine makes a desert.’ – Arab proverb.
We confuse pleasures with core happiness because pleasures are memorable. Day-to-day life isn’t. So, our ability to judge the source of our happiness is skewed.
Helen Keller spent almost her entire life blind, deaf, and effectively mute. But I suspect she had a strong core happiness because she once described a walk in Central Park: ‘I never lost a job of my delight in Central Park. I loved to have it described every time I entered it; for it was beautiful in all its aspects, and these aspects were so many that it was beautiful in a different way each day of the nine months I spent in New York.’
From her book,‘The Story of My Life.’ (To understand her companion’s description of the park, Helen would place her fingers on her companion lips. It’s called ‘finger spelling’.)
Q7. ‘Money provides financial security, which reduces anxiety and leads to happiness.’
‘True financial security is knowing that you could handle having no money.’
An anonymous quote found in Susan Jeffers’ book, ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’.
When some people lose money it feels like they’re being diminished, or drained. They’re frightened that if their assets drop below a certain threshold their life will begin to fall apart. So, they try hard to keep above that threshold, and to raise that threshold even higher. Yet, no matter how high the threshold, they still feel vulnerable. They worry about how secure their investments are, or how much they would lose in a divorce, or whether or not they’ll be sued. They lack security. Some people have lost so much money they have been left with only a few million dollars, and have killed themselves in fear of not being able to handle living on that ‘small’ amount.
It’s not just wealthy people. There are people with no money who cannot handle the idea of being poor. Their life falls apart and they end up trying to rob a petrol station.
The point is made by the quote above: financial security does not depend on how much money you have, or on how little. It depends on whether or not you feel you could handle having no money. From another chapter we found that a big chunk of core happiness comes from feeling we can handle a situation, not from arming ourselves against it.
I’m not suggesting you get rid of your money, or that it’s bad to be rich. But don’t assume wealth will give you financial security. It won’t. Only when you feel you could handle having no money will you feel secure.
A journalist, Katie Walsh, reported that Mr Cuff, who was on a panel of philanthropists, said he knew a couple with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. When Mr Cuff suggested to the couple that they might give some of their money away they reportedly replied, “we’re worried if we give now we won’t have enough when we really need it.’
Australian Financial Review, 21 June, 2012.
‘But when I don’t have enough money to pay the bills, I’m going to be stressed and unhappy!
That’s only natural. You wouldn’t be happy with a toothache either. But core happiness is about how you feel when nothing in particular is happening: when you’re not experiencing a toothache, or when you’re not under financial stress.
But consider: core happiness comes from feeling that whatever happens, you could handle it. So, if you felt you could handle the consequences of not paying those bills, you would cope better, and return to your core happiness sooner.
‘I have three kids to educate. I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable having no money!’
Nevertheless, if you felt you could handle not being able to afford your kids’ education then you would feel comfortable. Don’t forget, I’m not suggesting you give away your money, or stop earning it. Sure, educate your kids, but also look at what you would do if you couldn’t educate them. Would their lives really be ruined? Could you think of another way to help them grow? Could you, if need be, handle it?
‘My brother doesn’t seem to care that he has no money, and doesn’t care if his children aren’t educated. Does that mean he has financial security?’
‘So, how do I get financial security?’
As I say, by developing the feeling that whatever happens, you will handle it. It’s a long-term thing and it’s what this book is about. But, if you’re in a hurry, go camping in a tent with just food and water. No phones. No lighting. No computer. No electrical appliance. Stay there until the day finally comes when you are able to say to yourself, ‘This is dreadful! I would hate to live this way for the rest of my life. It would be absolutely awful. But . . . if I had to . . . if I had to live this way for the rest of my life . . . I guess I could handle it.’At that point you can get back into your Lamborghini and drive back to your mansion, financially secure.
‘Ha. Have you done it, Mark?’
I was fortunate. As a child I spent every school holiday in a log cabin in East Gippsland, Victoria. All we had was an open fireplace and tank water. I still go there occasionally. I would not want to live there permanently, but I know that if I had to live there permanently, I could. That knowledge gives me a feeling of security no amount of money could.
Q8. ‘Money is power. A person who hoards money feels powerful and confident as he looks at his bank account. Maybe the hoarding is a good thing (for him) as he now feels comfortable to take more risks.’
A person who feels powerful and confident with a big bank account probably fears poverty, or being diminished. That fear will remain lurking nearby, and as the person habituates to their wealth it will creep back. So, the person then needs to earn even more money. If they can do that, fine, but they might be spending a lot of time earning that money at the expense of other aspects of their life.
I’m suggesting they gain their feeling of power in another way – by developing the feeling that whatever happens in life, they could handle it.
As for the risks you mention, what would those risks be? Financial? To earn even more money? Would those risks become ‘gambling’? Is it possible the person would take fewer risks, in fear of losing some of the money they have hoarded?
Q9. With money we don’t have to do boring chores. We can hire someone to do them for us. Surely that will make us happier?
By not having to do those chores we avoid displeasure. But we are not increasing our core happiness. We are not becoming happier.
Yes, not having to do chores would be pleasing. Eating pizza is pleasing. Neither has anything to do with core happiness.
Further, someone who no longer needs to do chores might begin to find other parts of their life have become a chore. It’s all relative.
‘The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.’
Q10. ‘If I were wealthy I could give up my lousy job and write my book and say all the things I’ve been aching to say. My soul would be nourished and I would enjoy my life considerably. Therefore, having money would make me happier.’
Yes, money is wonderful stuff: it can fix toothaches, help charities do their work, and it can allow us to do things we think matter. Yes, you need money to write your book, but you also need a keyboard, a computer, electricity, your typing fingers, etc. To say your keyboard is adding to your core happiness would be silly; to say that money is adding to your core happiness is equally silly. It’s the act of following your heart which is contributing to your core happiness. Those other things: money, time, electricity . . . are just the means.
Q11. ‘Having money brings respect.’
People might respect your money, but that doesn’t mean they respect you. If they do respect you, it would be for your achievements and character, not for your money. If people respect you for your wealth, it’s not respect, it’s envy. Given half a chance they’d swap places with you. Is that the sort of respect you want?
Or, maybe it’s the power that you have over people you enjoy? When people respect you for the power you have, it isn’t respect, it’s fear. You need to ask yourself, why do you want people to fear you? The question then becomes, why do you fear people?
Consider gaining people’s respect (not fear) by your actions and by your words, not by the thickness of your wallet or the power you have.
When a person genuinely earns the respect of wise people, it’s not because that person is rich or poor, it is because of the person they have become.
Q12. ‘What about self-respect? I would feel ashamed if I couldn’t pay my way. If I could not pay my way, how could I satisfy my ‘deep need to belong’? Therefore, we need money to be happy.’
No, we need some money to avoid unhappiness. If we don’t have the money to fix a toothache, or pay our way, we can become unhappy. But once we have enough money to avoid those problems, that’s it. Having more of it won’t make add to our core happiness.
Q13. ‘If I were rich I would not have to worry about people disapproving of me. I could relax and be myself. That would make me happy.’
‘My wealth is four thousand million dollars — do you think I give a stuff about what you personally think? Or anyone else?’
Clive Palmer, Australian investor and politician, 2019
We only discover ourselves, and grow, when people can feel safe telling us our shortcomings. Their disapproval can be a handy moderator. If we didn’t care about what other people thought of us we could end up insensitive, self indulgent, eccentric and isolated.
It’s normal and healthy to have to deal with what people think of us. It only becomes a problem when we fear what people think so much that we moderate our behaviour to please them. Making yourself rich to avoid that fear seems silly.
If we fear people’s disapproval so much we need to be rich to avoid it, we are hiding from a problem. A far better strategy is to get to know ourselves, and trust ourselves, and learn to deal with the pain of disapproval.
Anyway, if people accept what you say simply because you are rich, their view is tainted. Plus, their compliments might be too tempting for you to disregard, which means you have set for yourself a trap. That’s not what you want in life if you are trying to grow.
To grow, we first need to see ourselves as we truly are. For that we need the considered disapproval of others. Only then can we begin to make the right changes.
Aim to be yourself regardless of how much, or how little, money you have. And welcome the honest insights of people you trust.
Q14. What about the process of making money? Can that make a person happy?
Yes, it can be enormously pleasurable making money. Ask anyone who receives a pay check, or gets a payout from a gambling venture, or sees their business succeeding, or sees their stocks rising in the stock market. Those instances can provide us with a big dollop of that first kind of happiness: pleasure. But it’s not the core kind. We need constant top ups to have our life satisfaction sustained.
For some entrepreneurs or investors, pleasure comes not from having money, but from making it, or from solving the puzzle of how to make it. Whether that can satisfy an innate need and add to their core happiness, I don’t know. One innate need is to contribute ‘to the tribe’ and feel valued for that contribution. If they can satisfy that need by making money – by employing people they care about, for example – they can add to their core happiness.
It also depends on why the person is making the money. If they’re trying to earn their self-worth then they might end up like a hamster on a hamster wheel, furiously trying to feel better about themselves but getting nowhere.
Or, if they are compelled to make money, they may find themselves addicted to making money, just one big step up from a poker machine addict. They may be unable to have a healthy life balance, or find the time to enjoy the money they make.
Or, if they are trying to alleviate their anxiety about becoming poor, making money won’t rid them of that anxiety.
Or, if they’re trying to buy status, they’re on that hamster wheel again, because there will always be people with higher status than they have.
Only when we feel we could handle being poor, and feel we no longer need to earn our self-worth, or gain status, will our anxiety dissipate.
Q15. ‘Studies show that the super rich are happier, on average, than the rest of us.’
Let’s assume the claim is true. Then it must be asked:
1. Are the rich happier because they have all that money, or do they have all that money because their happiness (and values) have encouraged them to be adventurous, hard working and confident?
2. Would a super-rich person be able to have all that money and still admit to being unhappy?
Q16. ‘Are there disadvantages in having lots of money?’
The super wealthy may have to worry about:
b) losing their money and looking foolish,
c) logistical problems and the time spent on protecting or investing their money,
d) the pressure to spend it wisely,
e) people being more interested in their money than in them,
f) the shame they might feel about how they obtained their money (eg. inheritance),
g) the condemnation or envy of many people who are not wealthy.
h) Having lots of money can raise a person’s expectations of how happy they should be, and when they aren’t happier, they can feel cheated.
Q17. ‘Is there anything wrong with being wealthy?’
Not unless you believe property is theft, as did Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. But if you felt the need to be rich, would that not indicate a discontent? An insecurity? If that’s the case, explore that insecurity and address it. Otherwise, you might spend a good part of your life becoming rich, and still feel insecure. And miss out on some of Life’s other blessings.
But, if you don’t feel the need to be rich, I can’t see how being rich would be a problem. Just be aware that your core happiness won’t be any stronger with that wealth, and while you want something, you can’t be content with what you have.
Here are some other happiness myths:
– The positive thinking myth. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
– Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
– Myth: We are happier with only a few possessions. Will having fewer possessions make us feel happier? How does that work?
– Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy. Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
– Myth: We need to reach our full potential. The life coaches offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. What’s going on?
– Myth: With wisdom comes happiness. Time and again we see in the movies a strong correlation between wisdom and happiness. Do we need to be wise to be happy?
– Myth: We need close relationships to be happy. It’s the biggest, most common myth about happiness of them all. Nearly everyone says it. Yet, it’s not true.
– Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
– Myth: We can choose to be happy. This is one of the most pernicious myths going around. Of course we can’t choose to be happy!
– Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
– Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?