To understand why money can’t buy happiness, we first need to examine what it is that makes people happy.
Generally, happiness tends to be defined by three markers: our “set point” (emotional baseline, if you will), our life circumstances, and our intentional activity.
Someone who’s struggling with depression, for example, will often have a lower set point. They may only be able to feel truly happy during positive life circumstances and/or through positive intentional activity.
Some people, on the other hand, have a very high set point and can generally maintain their cheery disposition even in the face of challenging life circumstances.
Circumstances have a lot to do with our happiness levels. If you’re living with people you love, and you’re generally healthy, those circumstances are conducive to happiness.
Same goes for intentional activity: if you trudge to a job you hate every day, that’s not going to do good things for your psyche.
So what role does money have to play in our happiness?
Well, it really can’t buy it and here are some of the reasons why.
1. Money can’t buy job satisfaction.
You could be making over $200K/year, offering you opportunities to travel, buy clothes that you love, and live in a spectacular home…
…but if you get panic attacks every time you have to leave for the office, your job isn’t making you happy, is it?
Many people stay at jobs they absolutely despise because they like the creature comforts associated with the money they make.
But can you truly enjoy a Caribbean cruise when you have the dark specter of a board meeting looming as soon as you get back?
2. “The things you own end up owning you.”
Remember this line from Fight Club? Tyler Durden was on to something.
That giddy little thrill you get when you buy something that you really like might cheer you up, but that joy is fleeting.
You’ll soon want (or even need) another mini high, so you buy something else… and then that flutter passes. Lather, rinse, repeat ad infinitum.
Before you know it, you’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on clutter: clothes you’ll never wear again, trinkets that just take up valuable counter space, etc.
Go the KonMari way and get rid of whatever doesn’t spark joy.
Then only buy things that you absolutely need, or will grant you a ton of long-term happiness.
3. Money can’t buy kindness.
Consider this paper: Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky.
In it, she goes into detail about an experiment done by herself and some fellow researchers in 2004.
They asked students to perform five acts of kindness for others per week, over the course of 6 weeks.
Some examples included helping friends with papers, visiting the elderly, donating blood, or writing thank-you letters.
They discovered that the participants experienced huge happiness boosts when doing acts of kindness for others.
Think about how happy you feel when you see a neighbor smile because you’ve brought them cookies, or how fulfilling it is to take a shelter dog out for a walk in the sunshine.
Doing kind things in service to others is one of the best ways to inspire happiness.
That happiness gets shared all around, increasing as it flows, and it doesn’t cost you a thing.
4. Money can’t buy happy, healthy relationships.
Some of the best, happiest experiences we can have are with people we care about.
Bonfires with good friends, laughing with romantic partners, sincere time with family members.
Catching up with dear friends over a coffee at their place, or having a big family backyard BBQ doesn’t cost much, but the rewards are spectacular.
The best relationships cost time and effort, but money is not a factor.
5. When is enough ever “enough”?
“This will never end ‘cause I want more… more, give me more, give me more…”
Those Fever Ray lyrics are startlingly accurate.
Like dragons squatting on their golden hoards, people who accumulate a lot of money seem to constantly strive for more wealth.
To them, wealth often equals power and status, so to have more money means that they feel more powerful, more respected, etc.
This is hardly the case, however.
Sure, they might be able to pay people to do things for them, but those people don’t love them, or even care about them. They just want to be paid.
And neither money, nor power, last forever.
6. Attaining goals comes down to motivation and perseverance – rarely cash.
Think about the last time you set a personal goal, and how happy and fulfilled you felt when you achieved it.
Did you train for a 5km charity run? Or perhaps you taught yourself to play a musical instrument?
Sure, you may have had to invest a bit of money for the tools you needed to make those goals happen (like running shoes or a cheap guitar), but the happiness you attained came from achieving the goal, not the item you bought.
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7. Doing things you love doesn’t need to cost much.
This one goes along with the previous note. Ask yourself what it is that truly makes you happy.
If it helps, grab your journal and write a list of things that inspire joy in you when you do them.
I’m pretty sure that there are low-cost options for just about any hobby or activity that brings you a great deal of happiness.
Do you love to read? Visit your local library for free books!
How about wood carving? Take a walk in the woods and gather some fabulous fallen branches to work with.
When I was learning to knit, I asked around my social circle and found that my friend’s aunt had a HUGE yarn stash that she wanted to get rid of.
Didn’t cost me a thing, but I was able to practice stitches, and make a ton of clothes for charity.
There’s always a cheap solution to attain joy.
8. Money can’t buy mindfulness.
One of the best ways to cultivate happiness is to be mindful: to be as present in this moment, this breath, as humanly possible.
If you’re holding on to bad feelings about past experiences, remember that what has passed is gone, and only exists in your memory. Let it go.
Does your happiness stem from anxiety about the future? That hasn’t happened yet.
Stay where you are right now, and respond to things as they unfold instead of trying to control or predict outcomes.
9. Nature is free.
Have you ever been truly blown away by the beauty of a dazzling sunrise?
Or how light plays across ocean waves?
How about a double rainbow after weeks of rain?
Think about some of the happiest moments you had when you were outside. Chances are those memories are some of the most beautiful you’ve ever had.
Has the act of buying a physical item ever caused that kind of long-lasting awe and joy?
Didn’t think so.
10. Comparing and keeping up with others costs us personal peace.
Of all the detrimental things we could do to ourselves, comparing ourselves to other people (and trying to either keep up with them, or surpass them) costs us the most happiness.
You got your Masters degree? Well, your friend just got their PhD so suddenly your self-fulfillment goes to hell.
You bought a great car? Too bad your brother just bought a vintage sports car that makes yours look like crap.
You get the idea.
Stop comparing your home, belongings, appearance, accomplishments, and pretty much everything else about you with other people.
They’re on their journeys, you’re on yours. How much money you each have is irrelevant.
Related article: How To Stop Comparing Yourself To Others
11. Self-sabotage only costs us joy.
Do you ever find that you stop yourself from being happy?
This is a common trait among people who grew up in abusive family situations.
Quite simply, every time they start feeling happy about something, they think of something awful instead, or sabotage the situation so the happiness ends abruptly.
This is to prevent other people from taking their happiness from them, as they might have done countless times in their youth.
Money cannot change this habit. Only through persistent self-work, perhaps with the help of a therapist, can you stop self-sabotaging.
12. Consistency is more important than financial investment.
This one goes back to activities and pursuits that make you happy.
If exercising makes you happy, but you’re so bored with your current routine that you procrastinate or skip workouts, your happiness levels are going to plummet.
Switch things up instead of giving up! If you’re bored with running or yoga, take up weight training, martial arts, or ballet classes.
Played your guitar to death? How about trying violin?
Have you mastered the language you were studying? Challenge yourself with another that’s totally different!
Keep at the activities you love – just change them enough to keep them interesting for you.
13. Spending money can lead to debt, which causes a WHOLE lot of unhappiness.
When you’re throwing away a ton of cash on “stuff,” fancy meals, etc., you may find yourself spending more than you’re making.
Just about everyone is carrying some measure of debt, but knowing that you owe several thousands on your credit card can cause a lot of stress.
That kind of stress isn’t going to increase your happiness, is it?
Try to live within your means, and invest in amazing experiences occasionally, instead of spending often on hollow, useless things.
14. A lot comes down to attitude, and gratitude.
Many people get irritated by the idea that one can choose happiness, particularly if they’re struggling with mental illness, poverty, etc.
Having been through difficult circumstances myself, I can relate to the frustration that can arise from others suggesting that you can “choose” to be happy when you’re miserable.
There are countless things for us to be grateful for and delighted by on a daily basis.
Try really enjoying that cup of tea or coffee instead of belting it back. Start a gratitude journal, and curl up in bed every evening to write down five things you appreciated that day.
Additionally, remember that a lot of the misery we experience does come down to choice.
Are you familiar with the expression “whatever you’re not changing, you’re choosing”? It’s a difficult pill to swallow, but also very true.
If you’re unhappy because you’re out of shape, but you’re not working out and eating better, then that’s your choice.
Hate your job? Get a new one.
Miserable in your relationship? Breakups are terrible, but you’ll end up happier in the long run.
Whatever is making you unhappy does have a solution. It may be difficult, and you may not want to face it, but ultimately your happiness really is up to you… not how many zeros are on your bank balance.