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Can Money Buy REAL Happiness?

“A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money.” ~ John Ruskin ~

Can Money Buy REAL Happiness?They say that money can’t buy happiness. Maybe “they’re” wrong, and in fact a number of studies are telling us that “they” are.

There are so many new studies out about happiness and money that it seems like everybody on the “happiness circuit” wants to be a “myth buster.”

Not so long ago there was a Princeton University Study that concluded $75,000 was all you needed to reach the happiness threshold.

So, if you happen to make more than $75,000 (of course that was middle 2000’s money) then you’re about as happy as you’re going to get. On the other hand if your income is below 75k a year, then more money is bound to put a big grin on your face, a really big, big grin.

This “happiness threshold” study by Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, did differentiate between the two types of happiness; the conditioned, day-to-day happiness – the shifting of your mood up and down. The second type of happiness is a measure of your deeper satisfaction, you feel about the how your life is going.

This distinction between the two kinds of happiness is important, especially in light of a more recent research which says  more money will make you happier and will continue to do so as your income increases. However, in both of these studies the definition of happiness is subjective or conditioned and not either measurable or real happiness.

According to Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson of University of Michigan, authors of the study, “Subjective Well-Being and Income,” it doesn’t matter whether you’re very wealthy, live in poverty or you’re somewhere in middle, the more money you make the happier you are.

The researchers believe they have debunked the “satiation point” myth, which basically, says that when we reach a certain level of income that we plateau (an income level that’s dramatically risen–much quicker than inflation- in the few years between the studies, from 75k to a whopping 161,000.)

Wolfers, in a Huffington Post interview, said the earlier studies “were not as “careful” and drew their conclusions from mostly informal analysis.” Wolfers explained…that if happiness really did taper off at a certain income level, “anyone who is rich would be an idiot.”

According to Wolfers, “If more money was not associated with more happiness, we would stop working,” and that “Every time we doubled income {in the study} we get the same increase in well-being.”

Subjective Happiness vs. Real Happiness

No doubt the Wolfers and Stevenson’s finding are “correct” based on their statistical data of subjective happiness.

The question for me is about the kind of happiness or well-being this research addresses.

It seems pretty obvious, that if you’re below a certain income level that comfort and survival will affect your happiness (evidently that’s a staggering 161k for folks globally.)

Their research points out that when you achieve an income substantially above poverty level, your conditioned happiness continues to grow.

I’m making a distinction between conditioned happiness – a non-sustainable happiness based on outside circumstances and conditions – and true well-being or authentic happiness – sustainable happiness unaffected by situations and circumstances – because, whether we are aware of it or not, there is a real and measurable difference.

Is there a difference? I mean happy is happy, right? At least that’s the implication inherent in the, “How much money does it take to make us happy – happiness threshold,” research.

I know that there’s been an effort to address this. How you define happiness has been problematic, and ultimately, open to subjectivity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a more objective way to measure real happiness?

Turns out, there is.

Barbara L. Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina, and Steven Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine have just published, in the National Academy of Sciences, a long term (over ten years) study in which they looked at the biological implications of experiencing happiness motivated by self-gratification and indulgence, compared the findings to happiness motivated by compassion, kindness (altruism) and well-being through some 21,000 genes.

And here’s their conclusion published earlier in “All Happiness is Not Created Equal:”

“…while those with eudaimonic (altruistically motivated) well-being showed favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells and those with hedonic (self-centered) well-being showed an adverse gene-expression profile, “people with high levels of hedonic well-being didn’t feel any worse than those with high levels of eudaimonic well-being,” Cole said. “Both seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. However, their genomes were responding very differently even though their emotional states were similarly positive. 

“What this study tells us is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion,” he said. “Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds.”

The positive effects of “doing good” have real world consequences including greater mind-body responses to bacterial infection from wounds, and reductions in inflammation – which can reduce the chances of cardiovascular, neurodegenerative and other diseases.

It appears that happiness is not as subjective as we’ve thought; that at a deeper level we know whether we are experiencing true happiness or conditioned happiness.

This knowingness expresses itself biologically, through our genes.

The real question isn’t whether money can buy us subjective happiness, but whether money can buy us real Happiness.

How Money can Really Buy You Happiness.

Good news, it can, at least according to two leaders in this field of research, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn co-author of, “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” with Michael Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School.

According to Norton:

“If you think money can’t buy happiness, you’re not spending it right.” 

“You should stop thinking about which product to buy for yourself, and try giving some of it to other people instead.”

The reason, money doesn’t make us happy “…is that we’re always spending on the wrong things, and in particular that we’re always spending it on ourselves,   and that “…people who spent money on other people got happier; people who spent money on themselves, nothing happened. It didn’t make them less happy; it just didn’t do much for them.” 

(For a better understanding of Michael Norton perspective on how money can buy happiness, see his TED talk below)

As the Fredrickson and Cole’s research points out, we are better off spending our money in ways that directly contribute to an increase in real happiness not temporary happiness, which is something I don’t believes been address the by “happiness threshold” research.

Yes, money can buy you real happiness, though, it’s not how much you have or what your level of income is, once you move beyond basic survival into reasonable comfort, but how you spend it.

Spend wisely, its good for your health.



 Related Reading from Laughter Happiness and Bliss

Happy Money offers a better spent buying time and experiences, not things, and even changing how you spend just five dollars a day can have a profound effect on how you feel.

Using groundbreaking research, Dunn shows us why we place too much emphasis on buying things that provide temporary happiness, and she ultimately shows us how we can change.

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