Can money buy happiness?

Contrary to popular belief, maybe it can. It depends on who you spend it on.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Can money buy happiness? Most of us would respond with a resounding “No!” Many of us have had that lesson drummed into us from our earliest days. I can’t count the number of times my father told me that money would never buy me happiness.

It’s been one of those philosophical truisms which we’ve grown up with. The ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

This kind of attitude has also provided plenty of fodder for comedians like Groucho Marx: “While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”

It came as quite a surprise to me when I heard a TED talk by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. You can hear the results of his research at www.TED.com. He begs to differ with this attitude. As a result of some very clever and creative experiments he and his team devised to try and measure whether money can in fact buy happiness, he has learned some surprising things.

What he has learned is that money can indeed buy happiness. The problem is not in the money. The problem comes with how we spend it. “If you think money can’t buy happiness, you’re just not spending it right,” he says.

He asks us to imagine how we normally spend our money. Usually, we tend to spend money mostly on ourselves. When people fantasize about winning the lottery, they often imagine how all that money will set them free from their daily worries. They think of what they would get for themselves.

Often, for lottery winners, the story is quite different. When people win the lottery, they often go broke very quickly. They begin to resent family members and friends who ask for financial help, and so people who have won the lottery often become anti–social, simply to protect themselves against all those who approach them with their hands out. But that’s a different column.

Norton devised one experiment with UBC undergraduates. He gave those who agreed to participate different amounts of money. One group was told to spend the money on themselves. Buy whatever they liked with the $5 or the $20 they were given. So they did — makeup, or something they wanted, or a cup of Starbuck’s. The other group was told to spend the money on someone else.

At the end of the day, his team interviewed the students and asked them how happy their purchases had made them.

Those who spent the money on themselves were neither more nor less happy. It just was something they did as part of the experiment. The other group, however, reported that they felt happier about themselves at the end of the day.

Other experiments had very similar results. It didn’t matter how much money people were given, or what they bought. The only thing which made a difference was whether you spent the money on yourself, or on someone else.

They wondered if it was a cultural phenomenon, so they replicated the experiments in poorer countries such as Uganda. They found exactly the same results. People spent the money differently, but the only thing which made a difference was whether you spent the money on yourself, or on someone else.

It doesn’t matter how you spend the money. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend. What makes a significant difference is whether you spend the money on yourself or on another person.

Can money buy happiness? Yes … provided you spend the money on someone other than yourself.

People who give money to charity are happier than people who don’t. This seems to be universally true.

An ancient Christian writer once wrote, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” That was the apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 9. It seems he may have been on to something.

We often talk about “giving until it hurts”. This kind of research stands those opinions on their heads. So let me invite you to buy some happiness. Don’t give until it hurts. “Give — and keep on giving — until you can’t stop smiling.”

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at

Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook