Nowadays, it seems like money can buy anything—but can it? Can money buy happiness? It’s an age-old question that’s been asked time and time again, within countless instances throughout history, by people everywhere from all walks of life. What this question really begs is whether money can buy things, and enough of the things, that are connected to our ultimate sense of fulfillment, and thus happiness, in our lives. There are many factors to consider and several different ways we can think about this question.
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Consumerism – Recent History and Statistics
All of us shop at least semi-regularly. Most of us can buy the things we need—and the things we want. So if we surround ourselves not only with our basic necessities such as clothing, food, and shelter but the extra luxuries that should provide us with even more comfort, shouldn’t we be living vibrant, happy, and fulfilling lives?
Spending and splurging have become quite massive since the 1990s with the introduction of Single’s Day and Black Friday – wildly celebrated holidays dedicated to the consumer. Single’s Day is the world’s single largest shopping day of the year and Black Friday, is the largest shopping event in the United States. In 2018, within 24 hours, alibaba.com alone made $30.8 billion dollars in sales on Single’s Day and on Black Friday a total of $717.5 billion dollars were spent by consumers. There is also the more recent addition of Cyber Monday, a term dreamt up in 2005 by a marketing team at Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday have inherently changed American Culture by taking over the Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday to celebrate gratitude and spend time with loved ones.
Easy Access and Too Many Choices is Counterproductive
For many people, shopping can even be considered a hobby or an enjoyable pastime. A leisurely stroll through the nearest mall between glossy storefronts flaunting glistening, displays is never far away—but why leave your home when all of that is already at your fingertips?
There are so many apps for that and the opportunities to shop online for anything that our heart’s desire is only growing. With the ease of shopping through mobile apps and access to consumer reviews, we end up having information overload and are paralyzed by too many choices.
Barry Schwartz, the author of, The Paradox of Choice states that seeking the very best may actually leave us worse off. By setting your standard to “the best,” you may be condemning yourself to a relentless feeling of “what if.” Too many choices are counterproductive. How much time do you spend researching products and reading reviews? The loss of time spent on information overload is counterproductive causing us to neglect obligations and responsibilities in life, which can result in increased stress and may induce anxiety.
By having access to anything a credit card can buy, literally at our fingertips, it would seem reasonable that all of us at least have the opportunity to achieve some semblance of happiness—if only spending money and buying things made us happy. That’s at least what our hyper-consumerist culture would lead us to believe.
Can Money Buy Happiness? – Societal Expectations
Spending money on material possessions is considered a status symbol and the things we own become trophies signalizing economic prosperity. If this narrative is starting to sound familiar, you’re not alone. There is researched psychology to explain the rift between money, buying power, and personal happiness.
Despite having the means to buy more than ever, we are still not happy. Societal pressure to “Keep up with the Joneses” motivate many of us to continually spend money and buy the newest gadgets, the fastest cars, or the biggest houses. However, the consequences of this pressure can be devastating. These consequences include, but are not limited to, low self-esteem, low sense of self-worth, inability to delay gratification and lose of future motivation.
What’s more, total household debt in the United States hit $13.15 trillion during the fourth quarter of 2017. For most people, none of those things are signs of happiness at all. But if money is not the source of happiness, then what is?
If You Have Everything You Want, Why Are You Still Unhappy?
Despite people today having a greater measure of affluence than generations before, we experience less happiness and are at greater risk of depression, according to psychologist David G. Myers. having more money and having greater and easier access to shopping has not given people of modern society a greater sense of happiness. This includes the many examples of wealthy people who are unhappy, despite their absorbent amounts of money.
Many of us have everything we need to be happy—and more—but many of us also struggle frequently with persistent feelings of unhappiness for a myriad of reasons. Instead of looking outward, we can often look inward and around us, within our community, for more sustainable outlets to find happiness without spending a dime.
Identity Crisis and Self Discovery
At the center of our happiness are our many different personal identities. To shift our thinking from consumerism to other sources of happiness, you could ask yourself: how do you identify yourself outside of your career and the things you possess?
Mandie Holgate, an international best-selling author, and speaker, confirms that clarifying who you really are and identifying your true values can be powerful keys to happiness. Both of these processes require a lot of soul-searching. Their rewards, however, can be profound beyond material wealth and possessions.
Some people identify themselves through their relationships, others by their belonging within different communities. For example, someone’s most important identity could be mother or husband while another person’s most important identity could be an affiliation with a faith-based organization. Others still may find hobbies or interests a crucial part of their identity. It’s not uncommon for some folks to identify themselves as hikers, historians, or even avid Harry Potter fans.
A vital part of this self-discovery process is recognizing and lessening our impulse to compare ourselves to others. As mentioned above, spending money to buy things and trying to Keep up with the Joneses can be detrimental in many ways. Similarly, the journey to happiness is a deeply personal practice and we gain nothing from comparing our progress and our lives to the lives and journey of others. We can simultaneously be inspired—not envious—of the people around us while still appreciating our own unique place in life.
Happiness Within Community
For many of us, our identities are related to the interpersonal roles we inhabit within our families and our communities. We may be aunts, uncles, parents, siblings, or a supervisor, a caseworker, a firefighter. In many ways, we can find happiness by grounding ourselves within a sense of community, especially a community that can provide us with support.
Research has found that happiness can be obtained in both receiving as well as giving support to others. For many people, a sense of community, especially a sense of belonging within a community, is a crucial piece of their personal happiness.
What community means to someone can look different from person to person and it may also fluctuate throughout one’s life. A person’s family can be one’s immediate community when they’re young. Beyond their family, another person can find community on an intramural sports team at school or within their church. As children transition from their families into college and adulthood, oftentimes, young adults face difficult shifts in their lack of community. Without a sense of community or belonging, many people can feel lost, isolated, and alone and, thus, unhappy.
If you’re at this juncture in life, perhaps you can ask yourself, “Is there a need in my community that I can fill? How can I spend my time contributing to others?” Many communities have food banks, pet shelters, and homeless shelters. You can volunteer at places like these, your church, and other organizations right where you live to enjoy a sense of belonging, purpose, and giving back to your community. By sharing happiness and appreciation for life with the people around you, you can reestablish your identity and find fulfillment and happiness again.
Author Dan Pink has written about maximizing happiness by focusing on purpose and mastery. There is a lot of wisdom to gain from applying these two themes to seeking happiness with not just our professional lives, but also to our personal lives.
Learning new skills or mastering an existing skill has been linked not only to happiness but also other positive outcomes. Vanessa King, an expert of positive psychology, explains that learning in adulthood can be a great way to building confidence and gaining a greater sense of self-efficacy. Instead of focusing on money and buying new stuff, get back to the awe and wonder you once had as a child, by exploring and learning new things.
What Are You Truly Passionate About?
Is there something you’ve always been passionate about, but haven’t yet explored? What are some of your happiest memories, and what were you doing within those memories? Were there subjects in school that you loved, but never pursued for whatever reason? Many of us have forgotten passions that we’ve let fall to the wayside for other pursuits. Now is a good of a time as any to rediscover your own capabilities and pursue those passions again.
Contrary to popular belief, continuing education doesn’t have to happen within the confines of a classroom. There is a myriad of resources available to us. Within digital as well as our physical brick and mortar communities, that are huge reservoirs of knowledge from where we can draw so much learning. Some examples of learning resources are libraries and DIY videos available on the internet. There are resources out there that cover almost any skill or topic you can imagine ranging from history lessons to creative writing to web development.
Pursuing a passion grants our lives renewed purpose. Whether you’re reigniting an old passion or discovering a new interest, lifelong learning is a powerful tool for happiness with infinite pathways to get there.
What is My Purpose in Life?
Everybody has asked themselves this question at some point. It’s important for some people to feel connected to something bigger than themselves, and the pursuit of new interests can open plenty of opportunities for people to explore their greater purpose. If you see a need in your community, there could be a chance that your new or improved set of skill or knowledge can help someone around you.
Experiences Over Things
With money, we can buy and collect things, but none of those things can really fill our hearts like a cherished memory can. If you can align your actions with your true self and values, you can pursue immaterial, yet profound things in your life that can bring you far more happiness than a new gadget can and in a more sustainable way. Although, this is not all to say that money is not useful.
Some of the most powerful things that money can buy you are experiences which, in turn, create irreplaceable memories. One of the most precious, yet limited, resources all of us have is time. Use that time wisely. Some of your most cherished memories may include traveling to new places, sharing a meal with a loved one, or a meaningful conservation.
The most profound part of these experiences isn’t the money spent or something physically collected, but the personal connection strengthened through these experiences. Experiences are gifts we can give to ourselves, to others, or that we can share. Think about the times you were most happy. Are your happiest memories related to reading reviews, spending money purchasing and collecting stuff? Or, are your happiest moments related to spending time with friends and family and living through life experience?
Can Money Buy Happiness?
Despite societal expectations, money in your bank account and being surrounded by material things will not guarantee happiness and fulfillment in your life. Happiness is based on how you view the world and is determined by your mindset. There are so many ways to feel fulfilled in life without spending any money at all. With or without money, it is vital to understand yourself and know your values. Find your purpose by pursuing your passions, giving back and spending time with family and friends because personal happiness and fulfillment is ultimately obtained by the priceless moments life.