Making More Money to Find Happiness: A Really Bad Idea

Image Credit: MattAboutMoney

“There are two ways to get richer: One is to make more money and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already at hand.”

Alain de Botton

Most of us who have chosen the first path described by Botton have discovered that even when we do make more money, there comes a time, usually decades into the pursuit, in which the internal dissonance of that quest starts to get in the way. For some of us, it’s just a nagging sense that maybe we’ve compromised more than we wish we had. For others, it’s a full-blown crisis. Either way, we ignore this wake-up call at our own peril.

To put it mildly, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. We live in a system in which some minimal amount of money is required to meet basic needs and a little more than that for access to modest opportunities and comforts. However, the research is clear that as income increases, its contribution to happiness decreases and we actually encounter a new set of stressors, challenges, and demands that compromise our wellbeing and our happiness.

When money is connected to work, as it is for almost all of us, there is almost always a direct correlation between how much money we make and how much additional time we dedicate to that pursuit. Unfortunately, the research cited above also makes it clear that above a certain income (typically less than $100,000 annually), time is a much stronger predictor of happiness than money, as is the way we spend money. For example, money spent on experiences and on other people predicts more and longer lasting happiness than does spending money on objects of desire, particularly objects that simply reflect luxury or status. So, for many of us, the pursuit of money is really a Faustian pact in which the more successful we are with that quest, the more factors come into our lives that mitigate against our search for happiness. Not so ironically, as wealth increases, so do difficulties in relationships. Research suggests that as wealth grows, people engage in less healthy interpersonal behavior, have less time for healthy, non-work, non-finance activities, develop fear of losing their wealth, and become vulnerable to making personal and moral compromises in the interest of maintaining and growing their wealth.

The effects of a quest for more and more money are usually insidious, sneaking up on us over time. It is only when we are forced, by dissonance, mental health issues, relationship problems, etc. to look back over “how we got here,” that we recognize just how much time, effort, intellect, and spirit we’ve dedicated to activities and people that, in retrospect, often didn’t align with our own values, desires, and wellbeing. And, equally insidious, in most cases, money turns about to be incredibly ephemeral. We can go from “rich” to “poor” in a strikingly short period of time with just a couple of unfortunate circumstances.

Of equal importance, we’ve also been sold a bill of goods related to happiness itself! Research suggests that happiness is somewhat ethereal and vulnerable to so many factors, that even in ideal situations, it is hard to sustain. It probably makes more sense to focus on having purpose, which is more sustainable over time, and is even less correlated with money. And—big bonus—purpose is not only more resilient than happiness, while negative events typically compromise happiness, they can give more meaning to life. In short, when we pursue purpose and meaning in our lives, we are more likely to experience alignment between our values and our behaviors and feel more satisfied with our life, both of which are probably more valuable and sustainable than happiness in isolation. In other words, we can feel good about ourselves and our lives regardless of whether or not we feel “happy” in a given moment, which sounds like a heckuva lot better thing to shoot for.

If you’d like to join a small group discussion on October 28th at 2pm Eastern time about how you can begin to shift from a pursuit of money (and dubiously happiness) to a pursuit of purpose, fill out a contact form here.

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