All right, all right, we know that money doesn’t buy happiness. But let’s be honest: More money doesn’t exactly make us miserable, either.
The wealthy enjoy an intangible benefit that often eludes the paycheck-to-paycheck worker: a sense of control over their lives. They feel secure in their jobs and less stressed about their futures. (Plus, they can order room service instead of trying to make three meals out of a Subway sandwich.)
But are they much happier than the rest of us wage-earning, ’90s-model-Camry-driving schlubs? Not really.
Rich! Happy? Not really
Studies show that lottery winners, heiresses, and the 100 richest Americans are only slightly more satisfied than the guy toiling for his pay in the generic office-park cubicle. Still, mere mortals find it difficult to allow that an extra digit or two on the paycheck won’t put a permanent smile on our faces.
Why is it so hard to accept the idea that increased wealth doesn’t markedly improve our mental health?
The ability to imagine — to try to predict our future state of mind — is what sets us apart from less-evolved species. It’s also the very thing that stunts our shot at true happiness.
We assume that a sportier car, a bigger house, a better-paying job, or that dress will bring us joy because, well, they did in the past, right?
Not really, says Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor and the author of Stumbling on Happiness. “Research reveals that memory is less like a collection of photographs than it is like a collection of impressionist paintings rendered by an artist who takes considerable license with his subject,” Gilbert writes. We forget that the new-car high deflated well before our first trip to the mechanic, and the raise came with stressful late nights at the office and a steeper tax tab.
Our appetite for self-destruction
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What’s so wrong with relishing and embellishing the good? It’s costly. Faulty emotional recall makes us do dumb things with our money, like buying cool new stuff that never quite satisfies.
In so many areas, we know when enough is enough. When we’re healthy, we don’t strive for extreme health. After a good meal, we’re sated — we don’t order another filet mignon to augment our satisfaction.
Yet our “pause” button shorts out when it comes to money. The brief pick-me-up that accompanies a raise or windfall (think of it like a caffeine buzz) drives us to want more. We get a raise, spend it, adapt to our improved circumstances, and seek more money, working up a sweat on what University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin calls the hedonic treadmill.
But somehow the happy-o-meter stays in the same place, or even slows down. Consider that the average American is less satisfied with life today than we were in the 1950s — yet we earn twice as much (and, yes, that’s adjusted for inflation). No wonder they never crown a winner of the rat race.
Wealthier people are more isolated, too–which has a negative effect on happiness. Wealth engenders isolation because acquiring more money predisposes people toward keeping their distance—or more simply, they might not need their peers in the same way. Additionally, as people climb into higher tax brackets, they value independence more and social connections less.
Still, that has key implications for personal happiness. Results from a Notre Dame study found that generosity indicators—such as giving money, volunteering and being available to friends—were highly correlated with happiness. Similarly, generosity had a positive effect on happiness in 93% of 136 countries studied.
That’s also because we tend to be happy when we’re more social. Studies show we can’t be happy without at least one meaningful, close relationship. The more vigorous social life we enjoy, the more likely we are to experience positive emotions.
If you are lucky enough to be rich, be mindful of your scientifically-proven tendency to isolate yourself. And if you’re still feeling down, try giving some of your wealth away to charity.