Why More Money Will Make You Happier – to a Point

A few weeks ago I led a local ministers retreat on the topic of the “the good life.”  This is a topic I’ve been researching and exploring for years now, so I figured it would be fun to pull some of that research together and share it in an intimate setting where we could have some real conversation.  It was fun; until it wasn’t.

Near the end of the retreat, I asked each participant to write his/her own definition of the good life. I anticipated they’d be walking away with a great, useful, meaningful working definition of the good life.   I thought I gave them everything they would need for the assignment.  They had five minutes of silence.  They had a big blank space on the handout.  They had 2 hours’ worth of content as well as deep conversation on the topic.  With all of this, I knew with great certainty they would be able to sketch out a simple understanding of the good life.  I was wrong. 

Some of them rambled a response that didn’t address the question much at all, most of them wrote nothing down, and several defined the good life in terms that were the exact opposite of what scientific research and scriptural wisdom tell us (all of which had been covered earlier in the retreat).

The most surprising thing to me was how many of the retreat participants defined happiness in terms of money.  This surprised me for two reasons:  First, these are Christian ministers.  You’d think of all people they would not place much importance on money.  Secondly, we had just covered all the research and reasons why money does NOT make you happy.  But still they defined happiness in terms of wealth.  I almost screamed.  Almost.

The relationship between money and happiness is complicated.  We’ve all heard that you can’t buy happiness.  But the research (and our own experience) proves that proverb somewhat incorrect.  The truth is that increased income and greater wealth do move the happiness needle in the positive direction, for a while.  The problem is that the law of diminishing returns applies big time to the money-happiness relationship.  When you’re poor, more money will make you substantially happier because you’re able to experience greater security, freedom, etc.  It’s tough to be happy when you can’t pay your bills.  But once you reach a certain threshold, the happiness returns for every extra $1,000 goes down substantially.  By the time a family earns around $80,000 annually, an extra thousand dollars makes practically no impact on happiness.  The problem is that extra money DID make us happier for so long that we keep expecting the same thing to happen even though we have enough for our basic needs. 

The value of money to make us happy is not unlike the value of pizza to satisfy hunger: when you’re super hungry, that first slice of pizza is soooo delicious.  The second one is good and satisfying, and you might even enjoy the third one (we’re talking kinda small slices here).  But by the fourth one, you’re likely to see almost no value in it at all.  You’d be a fool to think the fourth slice of pizza will bring just as much satisfaction as the first one.  But we fools do think more and more money will bring greater and greater happiness.  After all, more money did bring more happiness back when we didn’t have as much money, so we get duped into thinking it will keep on increasing our happiness.

Maybe the biggest problem with overvaluing the power of money to contribute to the good life is that we not only chase the wrong thing (money), but that we lose the chance to pursue the right things (relationships, meaning, engaging work, etc.).

Since I learned the truth about the relationship between money and happiness, I haven’t stopped trying to earn a healthy income, I just stopped expecting it to increase my happiness.  I have bills to pay, college tuition for my kids right around the corner, and great causes I’d like to support and I need money to help with these matters.  But will having money or using it in these ways make me happier?  Nope.  And by shifting expectations, I have a much greater chance of experiencing the good life.

What about you?  When have you overvalued money?  To what extent has your income reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to promoting happiness?  How would you define the good life?