Money, Happiness and Financial Stability

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It turns out that in a way, money can buy happiness, but just having more of it won’t do the trick. That’s according to new research suggesting that it isn’t employment by itself which contributes to happiness.

There’s an old saying that money can’t buy happiness. Plenty of evidence has accumulated over the years attesting to the fact that myriad factors are more vital than money to our sense of personal and life satisfaction. But evidence has also been mounting that our economic situation — especially our level of economic security — does indeed have a lot to do with the degree of happiness we experience in our lives. Now, some interesting new research sheds additional light on the role our financial situation plays in how happy we are.

According to noted mathematical economist Christian Bayer and his colleague Falko Juessen, having more money is indeed related to happiness, but not in the way anyone might first suppose. Their study, published in the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, concluded that money itself is not even the real issue. Rather, it’s the promise of doing better monetarily over the years and feeling more financially secure as a result that matters most. Even then, there’s a big catch: if you have to work harder to make the money you feel you need — working longer or overtime hours, taking on more stress, etc. — then you’re not likely to be any happier than when you made less and weren’t working as hard. In fact, you’re more likely to be unhappier because of the higher personal costs attached to doing better on the economic front. You’re likely to be the most dissatisfied if you have to consistently work longer and/or harder to either better or maintain your economic position.

Another interesting finding from the same study was that it’s not so much how much more money you make at any point in your life that contributes to your happiness but how long-term and predictable any increased income you manage to secure might be. Experiencing a short-term or temporary rise in income doesn’t really seem to affect how satisfied we are with our circumstances, even when those increases are very significant in size. It appears we’re simply not all that impressed with or heartened by short-term or large income gains. Rather, we’re happiest when we know we’re going to do a little better over time, and gaining steadily in our overall sense of security in the process.

Money may not be the key to happiness, but what the research appears to be telling us is that our level of financial security does indeed affect our emotional and psychological well-being. It appears that we’re most satisfied with our lives when we have some confidence that our level of financial comfort will increase steadily over time and and that we won’t have to kill ourselves to secure that increased comfort level. Bayer and Juessen lend strong support to both these notions. The study also called into question some other longstanding assumptions about employment and happiness. Most studies up to now have suggested that those who are employed at any job are happier than those who are unemployed or who have little hope of finding a job. The current study suggests that how long and how hard a person has to work and the likely long-term benefit of such work are what matters most to a person’s level of happiness, which may help explain why both the chronically unemployed and the working poor share some of the same emotional problems and concerns. Thinking about all these findings, it appears the basic tenets of behavioral science are only being validated once more. We all want to be rewarded for our labor. Otherwise, what’s the point of laboring? Few of us would embrace work purely for its own sake. We need to perceive a benefit. We want that benefit to be both substantial and lasting. So, while we’re quite willing to work harder or even longer hours when circumstances dictate — even for a substantial time — there has to be a long-term payoff for us to remain motivated. In the absence of such a payoff lies the breeding ground for despondency, depression, and malaise.

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Over the years I’ve counseled many individuals and couples whose difficulties with their financial circumstances were a big part of their unhappiness. I’ve also counseled folks who possessed the kind of wealth most of us could only dream of yet who were still quite miserable. So I know firsthand that the relationship between money and happiness is a complicated one. While there’s no simple financial “formula” for happiness, the research is slowly providing some answers about the role money plays in our overall sense of well-being. Bayer and Juessen draw conclusions consistent with observations I’ve made over the years with the many I have counseled. How financially secure we feel has a lot to do with how happy and satisfied we are with our lives. The prices we have had to pay to achieve our desired level of security impacts our happiness level as well. People are their most content when they feel their hard work is paying off by buying them a measure of security and, consequently, a greater degree of freedom to enjoy the many pleasures of life. Money itself might not buy happiness, but making enough of it to enjoy life without killing yourself trying to procure it may indeed be as close to a “formula” for a happier life as we’ll ever know.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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