Can Money Buy Happiness?

By Martin Brown

It’s a question we hear, and often consider, during the course of a lifetime: Can money buy us happiness? 

Writing about money and relationships over the past twenty years, I’ve gained a unique perspective about this topic. My work has allowed me to meet and interview people from all walks of life: the rich, the poor and everyone in-between, from the starving artist working and living in a one-room houseboat, to the couple having to use the intercom to find one another in their 18,000 square foot mansion.

The short honest answer is “No.”

Having money can buy you certain material luxuries, give you a degree of prestige, and perhaps a heightened sense of self-importance. But as we can see all around us, there are many unhappy celebrities, lottery winners, business executives, and trust fund babies, just as there are happy people who struggle every day to keep one step ahead of their bills.

The perception of happiness, particularly in America’s celebrity obsessed society, is grossly distorted. When you say rich, the average person hears rich and famous. In truth, 99.9 percent of us won’t walk down the red carpet on the night of the Oscars, or have the opportunity to take Oprah and her film crew on a tour of our new ocean front property in Hana. But as Thomas J. Stanley and Thomas D. Danko’s groundbreaking 1996 bestseller The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy revealed, over 95 percent of our millionaires are people who live quiet low key lives.

Recently I spent several days with friends who live on Florida’s Gold Coast who, through ingenuity and a lifetime of hard work, have made millions. Accordingly they live in a beautiful home, drive beautiful cars, and have beautiful things. If you were to spend a few hours with this couple, you would quickly learn that the root of their happiness is the deep love that they have for one another. The money is the icing on the cake of their lives. But it’s their joy in sharing the adventure of life together that for them is the cake.

The wealthy have stress factors that those of modest means don’t have. Most millionaires have their personal attorney on their speed dial, or to use today’s terms, one of their fave five. Having wealth makes you are a constant target for enterprising scoundrels that would like to lighten your savings account by a hundred thousand dollars or more. Rich people are often targets in our society in ways that the rest of us need not worry about.

While there are wealthy people who live good lives, I’ve been up close and personal with monied individuals who are just as lost on the road to happiness as people who are mired in debt. One single woman friend was a department store heiress who simply had no direction or purpose to her life. Her focus was always set on the next social gathering. She had a series of broken relationships, piling one unhappy story on top of another. Every evening at five she opened an expensive bottle of wine. By ten she was looped and off to bed. The next morning she rose with a raging hangover, pulled herself together and headed out for her daily routine of shopping, hair appointments, tennis lessons, and social lunch dates. Most of her friendships were shallow—and often short-lived—because she lacked depth herself.  

In total contrast to that, another woman I’ve known for a very long time left a job she was unhappy with and went into the world of designer fashion. Now she goes to work early each day, often comes home late, and has great pride and enthusiasm for her work. The two million dollars that she has made along this journey, once again, is merely the icing on the cake of a purpose driven life. Sure she’s happy about her money, but it’s the love of her career and the pride in what she’s accomplished that’s the real source of her happiness.

In her new book, Money & Happiness, financial writer Laura Rowley takes up the question of balancing wealth and happiness. She rightly observes that wealth, happiness, and the pursuit of personal values are all inseparable.  In a society in which the evidence of runaway materialism is everywhere we look, Rowley points out that knowing what you want your money to do for you has a lot to do with your future financial success.

Acquisition for the sake of acquisition is simply creating a series of momentary pleasures that often serve as mere diversions from those things that we feel are missing from our lives.  When the shopping spree has ended and the buying fever has lifted, we most frequently find that we are no happier than we were before we had all that lovely excess wealth.

The simple truth in balance is that living comfortably with a set of meaningful goals, both financial and non-financial, is the real path to lasting happiness.