Money & happiness: the search for the confounding factor

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In response to Steve Maich’s article in the May 5th issue of Maclean’s magazine titled “It’s official: money buys happiness”.

Many of my close friends would be shocked if I told them I do believe that money and happiness are linked. It seems that they, like many others, have a hard time admitting to this relationship, maybe because for the longest time we have related being rich to characteristics like greed, selfishness and less than ethical means of acquiring it, just to name a few.

But this is not always the case. Many lovely people are very rich because of hard work, are not greedy, are only slightly selfish (who isn’t?) and have impeccable work ethics. And these people are very happy.

Another reason it’s hard to admit the relationship between money and happiness is that it doesn’t always fit; there are many rich people who are not happy, and many poor people who are very happy. Are they the exception that confirm the rule, or do they form an argument that changes the nature of the correlation between money and happiness?

Money can definitely buy happiness, but in an ever changing world outdating yesterday’s reality in smaller and smaller timeframes, the question should be updated – yet it hasn’t. It isn’t anymore a matter of if money can buy happiness, but rather how money buys happiness. The reality of depressive rich people and giddy poor people clearly indicates that a confounding factor exists which has yet to be taken into consideration.

In some senses, it’s pretty obvious how money buys us certain levels of happiness. For example, money allows purchasing food and acquiring shelter. I think we can all agree that in general, not being chronically hungry and having a safe place to live in contributes to feeling happy.

But having more money allows you to eat foods that you like and have a shelter of your choice, rather than settling for what you can afford. We are all attracted to beautiful things (although that beauty is very relative *cough – big hideous expensive metal fountain across the street from where I use to work – cough*). Having more money allows us to quench this need created by our natural attraction to beauty, thus making us happier. Having even more money allows us to pursue other avenues of interest that satisfy higher manifestations of our attraction to beauty, such as painting, gardening, fashion, travelling etc. And so on, so forth.

There is also the fact that if the correlation between money and happiness was as simple in real life as it seems to be on paper, the curious phenomena of “relative wealth” wouldn’t exist. This concept makes even less sense if happiness was in direct correlation with wealth. The fact that a rich person can feel unhappy because his wealth isn’t at the same level or higher than that of his neighbour is but one of the cracks in the direct correlation of money and happiness. The concept of relative wealth also casts a disparaging view on humanity, as it devaluates our collective worth, talents and capacities into a race to who has the most money. Certainly a creature blessed with a natural attraction to beauty is meant to do more in this world than only acquire wealth?

World renowned economist and philosopher Amartya Sen elegantly demonstrated the fact that development is freedom to choose what one wants to do. This freedom has been related to happiness; but is this happiness related to net monetary worth, or rather to the choice of the person who has freedom?

When one has to worry about necessities such as water and food, one doesn’t think about much more than that. But once development has been achieved, once a certain level of material comfort, related to money, has been achieved, the people have the freedom to start thinking about other things. What they choose to think of and how they choose to live their lives in a way that will make them happy depend on the person’s values. What if these values are the confounding factor of the correlation between money and happiness?

And what really is happiness? Are those who say they are happy truly happy? We can easily fool ourselves into believing that we are happy; having money probably allows us to make that assumption more easily. Maybe they think they are happy because they have reduced the scope of their humanity to making money and reaping the fruits of having that money. The more money you have, the stronger the illusion that it is buying you happiness can hold. But it seems clearer and clearer that while more money definitely make happiness more easily attainable, when it is the only factor contributing to said happiness, the illusion can easily be shattered and the happiness easily lost.

Personal values seem to be the sticky point, the not-so-elusive confounding factor of the correlation between money and happiness. Everyone has personal values, and they affect every aspect of our lives. Money gives us the opportunity to use our money in ways that can bring us happiness; personally values are the guidelines that we use our money by.

So if our personal values make us share our money, then having more money gives us the luxury of being generous. Being generous has been linked numerous times to happiness. So money would bring generous people happiness because it gives them the power to do good deeds and help others, making the world a more beautiful place. Because of our inherent attraction to beauty, this is what truly makes us happy.

Then again, maybe I have it all wrong. If someone would be kind enough to give me ten million dollars to experiment, I’d oblige and share the conclusion of a very assiduous and thorough study with them. What can I say – it’s a manifestation of my attraction to the beauty of truth.

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