Growing Wealth, Risking Health-Why money can’t buy happiness.

I’ve recently started a #debtfree journey, where I’ve mapped out how I will pay off my debt (aka student loans) and become financially free. Related to this, Chapter 5 of the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, is appropriately titled, The Pursuit of Happiness, wherein, he discusses our often misguided pursuits of wealth, fame, recognition, etc.

People who report the greatest interest in obtaining money, fame, or beauty, are consistently found to be less happy, and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.

Dr. Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis

Further in the chapter, he explains how Western culture, and particularly American culture, strives to achieve status and perceived happiness, more than we actually strive for happiness. According to the book, this is why we (Americans), would rather take less vacations and make more money, instead of taking more vacations, make less and, subsequently being happier. Essentially, it’s always been about Keeping Up With the Jones (or the Kardashians??), it’s about one upping your competition and gaining power and influence.

I think we can all agree wanting to be powerful and influential isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. The problem is that power and influence are mistaken for happiness. We think that when we are rich, or when we are famous, or when we rise in social status, we will be happier, yet, this is almost never the case.

Should we all renounce our materialistic ambitions?

It’s important to note, while money does not buy happiness, necessarily, it does offer piece of mind. Dr. Haidt mentions this briefly as he notes, “once basic needs are met, money simply cannot buy additional happiness.” The way I understood, “basic needs,” is a state where you have enough money to cover your bills and your rent or mortgage, have food on the table and, money left over for other basic needs (i.e gas, clothes, diapers, etc). What does that mean for someone living paycheck to paycheck? Or someone struggling to save, or someone like me whose “basic needs” are met but also lives with crippling debt?

I do agree with the general idea “money can’t buy happiness,” however, we need to revise the notion that “once basic needs are met” we will not gain anything from having a few extra coins in our pockets. Using myself as an example, I have a middle class income; I live alone; I follow all the “best practice” advice on how much I should spend on rent, groceries, etc, I have plenty of “spending” money, and yet, I have crippling debt. Yes, all my basic needs are met but I live with consent anxiety over my never ceasing student loan debt.

Once we’ve reached financial freedom, money simply cannot buy additional happiness.

This brings us to the idea of financial freedom. Being financially free is a state of living where you are not tied down, anxious, stressed, or worried about your financial status. In todays world, where things like credit card debt and student debt has had a negative psychological effect on so many people, it is safe to say that meeting our “basic needs” is no longer enough.

Instead, we need to be proactively educating ourselves on financial literacy, and how we can control money so that it does not control us. To Dr. Haidt’s original point, this is not about Keeping Up with the Jonese, this is about an internal practice that will improve our daily lives, offer peace of mind and, reduce stress and anxiety—all which can lead to a happier life.

Final Thoughts

There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your financial situation, especially if it is the cause of stress and anxiety in your life. The key is to have intentionality; what is your true motive for building wealth? Is it to become financially free? To save for the future? Note these are all “behind the scenes” goals— no one will know how much money you have saved or that you are debt free just by looking at you. In turn, if you want to build wealth to buy fancy things, or to show it off to your friends, then you are in it for the wrong reasons. Yes the wealth may bring you influence and power, but the pursuit of wealth, will not lead to happiness. It may very well lead to unhappiness. This is something we should fully understand and accept as true before making sacrifices to build wealth.

This post is part of the Happiness Series. View more posts from this series.

Check out Dr. Haidt’s book site:

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