Woven into our capitalist society is the idea that “more is better.” If we have a lot of money, we can buy a lot of stuff and this will make us happy…right?
Is this really true though? What does your own experience tell you about this? You’ve probably found out that you quickly adapt to any new material goods that you purchase. Yes, the high-def TV, designer purse, iPhone, and brand new car make us happy…for a bit. Then we adapt and our happiness goes back to what it was. Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation” and that we all get caught up running on the “hedonic treadmill.” We work hard to earn more money to buy stuff that makes us happy…for a little while. When we adjust to that and our happiness drops back to what it was before, we think we need to earn even more money to buy more and better things to get the happiness back.
However, pursuing money thinking it will help us achieve happiness is a dead end. Research has shown unequivocally that, beyond the poverty level, more money does not lead to greater happiness. So, a person (living within his/her means) earning $30,000 per year will not be, on average, measurably less happy than someone earning $3 million per year (living within his/her means). If we are not living within in our means, no matter how much we earn, we will experience a certain level of distress. Kind of sounds like a drug addiction, right?
Here’s the really insane part: social comparison can lead to some unhappiness. That is, if we are constantly looking at other people who are earning more than an us and thinking to ourselves, “If I had as much money as him/her, THEN I would be happy,” that very thought makes us unhappy. But if we really earned as much as the person we envied, we wouldn’t actually be any happier. In fact, once we moved up to the next income bracket…and moved into a nicer neighborhood, etc., it is very easy for us to then start looking at the next higher income bracket and start thinking, “Now, that’s where the real happiness is! Then I could buy the Porsche, get that beach condo…”
This is the hedonic treadmill. If we stay on this treadmill, we experience a certain level of suffering because we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. We cannot “catch” happiness buy pursuing more money.
Interestingly, there are ways that money can buy happiness…if you know how to spend it right. That’s for my next post!