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Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But It May Help You Earn It

“Money can’t buy happiness, but it will certainly get you a better class of memories.” – Ronald Reagan

I recall the words to the Beetles’ song from a few years back,  “Can’t buy me love…”. The most important part (for me) of this song came a few lines later: “I don’t care too much for money, cause money can’t buy me love.” For many people, love means happiness. Being in love fosters strong emotions, including a powerful feeling of happiness that’s so intense, it almost takes your breath away. Yet, while money can’t buy happiness, in the strict sense of the word, having money to spend may help you earn happiness.

Confused? Here’s why I think so, backed up by some convincing research I’ve found on the subjects of happiness and money.

How to Experience Longer-Lasting Happiness from Purchases

In an interesting study, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M University looked at whether how people frame their goals for an experience has any bearing on the long-term happiness they expect to glean from the experience. Note that this also applies to material purchases, such as a car, and experiential ones, such as a vacation. What’s surprising is that those who had specific goals for the experience – ones that were concrete and easy to measure – and those  who had more general goals tended to report the same levels of happiness at the time of the initial purchase. However, those with broader goals experienced more happiness over time.

The researchers concluded that having broader goals for happiness can result in a longer-lasting emotional imprint.

My experience: I’ve bought and leased many vehicles over the past few decades, and I can’t say that any of them really brought me lasting happiness. Perhaps it was because they were purchased for a specific and time-limited goal, one that would only last 2-3 years. I will say, however, that one car I’ve owned the longest (since 2008) still makes me happy. For one thing, it remains in almost showroom-new condition. For another, it’s been paid off for years.

The best purchase that brought long-lasting happiness was a family vacation to Kauai several years ago. After enthusiastic planning the vacation, we rented a house and a car, and most of our children traveled to the island to visit with us during the Christmas-New Year’s holidays. It was expensive, yet worth every cent. We not only had a wonderful time while there, we did many things we’d never do – like snorkeling, climbing a remote jungle path, staying out all day on a charter that stopped at a deserted spot for a cookout lunch – we also wound up with cherished memories we talk about today.

How “Pro-Social” Spending Also Boosts Happiness

Another recent study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies looked at the concept of spending money on other people and how that experience affected their levels of happiness.

An earlier study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggested several ways people can get more happiness from spending their money, arguing that most people probably aren’t spending it right. Included among their suggestions were these two sage recommendations: to “use the money to benefit others rather than themselves” and  “pay close attention to the happiness of others.”

Other research published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization found in one study that the emotional benefits of prosocial spending were “unleashed” when givers are aware of their positive impact. In a second study, they found that participants recalling that when they spent money on others and it had a positive impact were happiest.  

My experience: Looking back at some of the purchases I’ve made when the intent was to bring happiness to others, I’d have to say that the times when the recipient had no idea such a gift was forthcoming and expressed delight upon receiving it were the best. One that comes to mind was when we had to go out of town and there was a leak in our irrigation. Our neighbor called us and the water department and supervised while the leak was inspected, and water turned off at the house. She kept us informed the entire time and went out of her way to help us out. We sent her a gift basket that she raved about for weeks afterward, telling her friends and relatives about it as well as thanking us profusely, saying we really didn’t need to do that. The gift was sincerely meant as a thank-you, and I was very happy that it brought her joy.

You Don’t Have to Go Overboard With Generosity to be Happy

Neuroeconomists from the University of Zurich found that promising to be generous and being even a little bit generous both enhanced happiness afterward. In other words, the amount of their generosity was not the key, but the fact that they wanted to be generous. Study participants who were generous only for their own self-interests, however, were not as happy afterward.

What’s interesting to note is that the researchers studied three areas of the brain to gauge activity level: the temporoparietal junction (which is where generosity and pro-social behavior get processed), the ventral striatum (associated with the emotion of happiness), and the orbitofrontal cortex (the part of the brain weighing pros and cons during decision making). The brain areas reacted differently depending on the participants’ commitment to generosity or selfishness. Just promising to be generous activated the areas associated with altruism and happiness. Intent alone was enough to generate a neural change, long before any action was taken.

My experience: As a child, our family had what I would characterize as modest means. We always had food on the table and I don’t recall being deprived, although I wore darned socks and hand-me-down clothes and made toys out of sticks and stones and whatever natural materials I could find. I do recall being envious of some of the grade school kids who lived in houses and had large yards, lots of store-bought toys and fancy new clothes (and the girls wore something different to school every day). If I got a dime, I saved it in a piggy bank. I was conscious that money was something to hold onto, not spend on candy.

When I grew up and had children of my own, we fared a little better – always food on the table, and I made sure the kids had nice clothes to wear (not the most expensive, but never hand-me-downs). I still saved, yet I wasn’t afraid to spend a little money on something to make the kids smile – a movie, a trip to the zoo, going out for ice cream cones on a hot summer day. I was happy doing so. Funny, my kids don’t remember wanting for anything and said they were happy. Intent did increase my happiness.

To me, what matters most is that you can earn happiness by giving of yourself, with money and/or time. I think of this as adding little gold stars to my soul, yet others can regard it anyway they like. The fact is, as proven by science, money can lead to earned happiness.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But It May Help You Earn It


Suzanne Kane

Suzanne Kane is a Los Angeles-based writer, blogger and editor. Passionate about helping others live a vibrant and purposeful life, she writes daily for her website, www.suzannekane.net. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central. You can reach her at [email protected].

APA Reference
Kane, S. (2018). Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But It May Help You Earn It. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/money-cant-buy-happiness-but-it-may-help-you-earn-it/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Sep 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 21 Sep 2018
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