Money Can’t Buy Happiness — Or Can It?

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Many people get sucked into the belief that having more money is the key to a better life. But it’s not.

The key to a better life is increased happiness. For some people, that does mean more money. But according to research Tal Ben-Shahar shares in his book Happier, most of us would be better served by:

  • Creating rituals around the things we love to do.
  • Expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives.
  • Setting meaningful goals that reflect our values and interests.
  • Playing to our strengths instead of dwelling on weaknesses.
  • Simplifying our lives — not just the stuff, but the time.

(MORE: Plan Your Way to Less Stress, More Happiness)

We’re more likely to lead happy lives by putting these principles into practice than by getting another raise at work — especially if the increased income would only lead to increased spending. When we focus on monetary goals, we run the risk of becoming trapped on the “hedonic treadmill,” working harder and harder to make more and more money. This does not lead to happiness.

Wealth and happiness aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. Sometimes money does buy happiness. According to financial writer Jonathan Clements, financial stability improves well-being in three ways:

  • If you have money, you don’t have to worry about it.
  • Money can give you the freedom to pursue your passions.
  • Money can buy you time with friends and family.

(MORE: Will a Global ‘Happiness’ Index Ever Beat Out GDP?)

In five years of writing about personal finance, I’ve read a lot about the relationship between money and happiness. Here are five of the most important lessons I’ve learned:

  • People who are materialistic tend to be less happy than those who aren’t. If your aim is to have more money and more stuff, you’ll be less content than others whose goals are built around relationships or mental/spiritual fulfillment.
  • Oversaving does not lead to happiness. While it’s important to save for the future (and to cope with current emergencies), research shows that oversaving can actually have a negative impact on your quality of life. If you’re meeting your goals for saving, it’s okay to spend some on the things that make you happy.
  • Experiences tend to make us happier than material things. We have different reactions to the money we spend on experiences and the money we spend on material goods: When we spend on experiences, our perceptions are magnified (meaning we feel happier or sadder than when we spend on stuff), and the feelings tend to linger longer. And since most of our experiences are positive, spending on activities instead of things generally makes us happier.
  • When we lower our expectations, our happiness increases. High expectations come when we compare ourselves to others or when we’re bombarded by advertising. We come to accept the things we see on TV as “normal,” and because we don’t have these things, we feel inadequate. Our expectations rise, and before long we’re caught up in lifestyle inflation. But if we can consciously manage our expectations — both financial and otherwise — we can increase our sense of well-being.
  • True wealth isn’t about money. True wealth is about relationships, about good health, and about continued self-improvement. True wealth is about happiness. Ultimately, it’s more important to be happy than it is to be rich.