How Money Buys Happiness

Ever since the ancient Sumerians began trading commodities as currency, men have been enthralled with money. From the origin of credit during the Babylonian Empire to the introduction of the modern credit card, mankind has been obsessed with gaining more money at greater speed with greater ease. Money has been the rise and downfall of civilizations, the catalyst of conflict, the sinews of war and the key to peace. The issues of money and credit have played a dominant role in world history, from providing impetus to the Crusades to ensuring Union victory during the American Civil War. Whether coins made from gold or numbers on a computer screen, money represents a store of value and portable power.

Money inspires the greatest of passions — both good and bad. Warren Buffett, the world’s wealthiest man, recently made headlines by donating an unprecedented $37 billion to the Gates Foundation.  Conversely, Francisco Pizzarro led an expedition of Spanish conquistadors against the Incans almost 500 years ago, pillaging and looting all their possessions, killing their army, and garroting their emperor Atahuallpa.  Pizzarro ruthlessly forced the natives to work their own mines, extracting gold and silver for shipment back to Spain. The invasion and forced labor killed thousands of Incans, whose blood and toil gave the Spanish crown wealth beyond its wildest dreams.

Money brings out the best and the worst of human nature. But can it buy happiness? The answer is yes, but not in the way you might think. The mere possession of money does not yield happiness, but giving money away can provide great joy. 

Having money does not ensure happiness. A 1995 University of Illinois study found that one third of America’s wealthiest individuals were less happy than their average-income counterparts. If the mere possession of money creates happiness, then the richer members of society would certainly be leading the happiest lives.

Reality paints a far different picture. Some of history’s wealthiest individuals have been the most miserable.  Here is what some of them have said:

John D. Rockefeller, the richest man of all time: “I have made many millions, but they have brought me no happiness.”

William H. Vanderbilt: “The care of $200 million is enough to kill anyone.  There is no pleasure in it.”

Henry Ford: “I was happier when doing a mechanic’s job.”

John Jacob Astor: America’s first millionaire, “I am the most miserable man on earth.”

Their money was certainly not cause for happiness to these individuals, and instead often contributed to making their lives miserable.

Consider the sudden fortune that came to Keith Bryce, a 2005 winner of the Mega Millions lottery. Bryce received $3.7 million, overnight becoming a wealthy man. Instead of solving all his problems, the money only compounded them. His subsequent marriage to a younger woman has angered Bryce’s mother and she barely speaks to him. Bryce’s relationships with his siblings were strained following an ill-conceived business venture that was financed with his winnings. Sudden wealth has brought hard feelings and destroyed his family connections, and three years later Bryce has spent almost all of the money with little to show for it.

Bryce’s story and the testimony of some of America’s richest personalities illustrate the fallacy of money equaling happiness.  While money allows the acquisition of expensive possessions, the beneficial effects are short-lived. Eventually great wealth became a burden to these individuals, contributing to depression and misery.

The only way to achieve genuine happiness through money is in giving it away.  At first glance this appears illogical, but an understanding of the definition of happiness reveals this to be the case.   Helen Keller best defined happiness when she said: “A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.

Many individuals have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”  Ayn Rand took this thought further when she said: “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”  Thus happiness comes not from pursuing material, short-lived things like money or power, but from worthy ideals and the attainment of an individual’s values. Happiness is not self-gratification but rather selflessness.

Applying this understanding of happiness to the topic of money, selflessness means giving it away.  Happiness is attainable when we use money to enrich the lives of others.  Pursuing and clinging to money does not lead to happiness and often produces the opposite effect. One wonders if the wealthy people mentioned would have been more joyful had they never amassed such riches.

The absence of great wealth certainly does not inhibit happiness, and times of financial hardship can actually be beneficial.  Whether individually or organizationally, good things can come from financial crises. Financial depressions force individuals and businesses to become innovative and rely on ingenuity for survival.  Some of today’s most successful companies have been launched in the midst of economic downturns. Well-known corporations like Microsoft, Wikipedia, Disney, and Hewlett-Packard were all started in less than
desirable economic conditions.

Economic depressions can also have a positive effect on individuals – they bring a renewed emphasis on things like family, friends and relationships. Having strong family and friend relationships could be considered an almost universal ideal of happiness, and money can often get in the way of these other, more important areas in life.

Thankfully many recognize that happiness is not rooted in the ownership of possessions, power or money, but in things like contentment, strong relationships and helping others.  Money and happiness are not mutually exclusive, but one does not beget the other. Happiness is not a commodity that can be bought, but rather an ideal that can be found. For even when money is not present, happiness can flourish. It is giving rather than receiving — selflessness instead of selfishness — that brings about authentic happiness.


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