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The Surprising Reason Why Money Can’t Buy Happiness

pexels-photo-259165Money can’t buy happiness. But why not?

After all, money has its advantages. In one study, Nobel Prize-winning scientists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Keaton looked at this question. They found that as income increases, life-satisfaction rises too.

On the role of money in his dating life, Curb Your Enthusiasm comedian Larry David, quipped, “She’s supposed to like me for myself? I don’t even like me for myself!”

Still, most of us intuitively feel money alone can’t explain happiness. Let’s look at why.

The (Un)happy Thief

Consider a scenario from a study led by Harvard cognitive scientist Jonathan Phillips:

Tom always enjoys his job as a janitor at a local community college. What he likes most about his job is how it gives him a chance to meet the young female students who are attending the community college. Almost every single day Tom feels good and generally experiences a lot of pleasant emotions. In fact, it is very rare that he would ever feel negative emotions like sadness or loneliness. When Tom thinks about his life, he always comes to the same conclusion: he feels highly satisfied with the way he lives.  

The reason Tom feels this way is that every day he goes from locker to locker and steals belongings from the students and re-sells these belongings to buy himself alcohol. Each night as he’s going to sleep, he thinks about the things he will steal the next day.

Researchers presented this story to participants and asked them to rate Tom’s level of happiness. Though Tom is described as having good feelings, people felt he was not happy. Why not?

One answer is that feeling good isn’t enough to be happy. As the researchers put it, “[The] results of this study suggest that the influence of moral value on assessments of happiness is highly robust.” Put differently, most of us think that happiness involves living a moral life.

Is there any relationship between happiness, money, and morality?

Of Mice and Money

One insight involves killing mice. Economists at the University of Bonn ran a series of experiments. They wanted to know if markets would influence people’s willingness to kill a mouse for money.

In the first experiment, they presented participants with a choice. They could take 10 euros and a mouse in a laboratory would be gassed, or turn down the money and the mouse would live. Forty-six percent took the money.

In a second experiment, researchers set up a market between two people. One person was given responsibility for the life of the mouse. Another person was given 20 euros. If they reached an agreement on how to divide the money, each would receive a payment and the mouse would be killed. If they could not reach an agreement (if one or both refused to bargain) the mouse would be saved. Seventy-two percent reached an agreement, thus allowing the mouse to die.

You might feel uneasy reading this. The results suggest that individually, most of us would turn down a cash payment to do something morally questionable (or morally evil, depending on your viewpoint). But in a market environment, our moral standards loosen. Markets normalized treating the life of a mouse as a commodity to be bought and sold.

What Money Can’t Buy

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel makes this point in his book, What Money Can’t Buy. Sandel claims that while there are many advantages to having a market economy, there are disadvantages to being a market society.

For example, would you want to live in a society in which people tattoo advertisements on their forehead in exchange for money? Maybe. Still, for many of us it seems wrong. You might think a person who would do this is not happy.

Moreover, imagine lots of people in society sold space on their bodies to corporations. We may think it would reduce the overall happiness of society. People would make money, but there is more to happiness than money.

Morals and Happiness

If not money, then what causes happiness? Consider an experiment led by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky about doing kind acts for others. Researchers asked people to do five kind acts one day per week for six weeks. Examples included donating blood, writing a thank-you letter, or visiting an elderly relative. People experienced a significant boost in happiness for doing kind acts for others.

You probably think happiness involves living a good life. A good life includes being a good person, a moral person. Doing good things for others will likely make you happier. If money can’t buy a good life, then money can’t buy happiness.  

The Surprising Reason Why Money Can’t Buy Happiness


Rob Henderson

Rob Henderson is a veteran and Eli Whitney scholar at Yale University. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Psychology Today, and Yale Daily News. Rob is a research assistant at the Yale Mind and Development lab, where he explores the nature of language, thought, and moral reasoning. He is also an undergraduate ambassador for Service to School, a nonprofit organization designed to help veterans earn admission into college. Follow Rob on Twitter: www.twitter.com/robhendersonEW.


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APA Reference
Henderson, R. (2018). The Surprising Reason Why Money Can’t Buy Happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 12, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-surprising-reason-why-money-cant-buy-happiness/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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