You’ve probably heard someone say that you can’t buy happiness but is this true?
The answer is, yes and no. Like most things in life, it’s a bit more complicated.
Before we dig into the full answer, let’s look at what money is for a moment.
What Is Money?
“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Humor aside, what do those “small green pieces of paper” actually represent? They represent the potential to be converted into something useful.
Money, by itself, has little value. An old newspaper contains far more use as firewood than a $100 bill and Arthur Dent’s old towel works better to pick up spills. It is the potential for that money to be converted into something useful that is valuable.
What we’re talking about here is that it’s how you spend your money that matters, not the money itself. Money won’t bring you happiness but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to do so. Let’s look at when you can and can’t buy happiness.
Happiness for Sale
What kinds of happiness can you buy?
Actually, you might be surprised to learn that there is quite a lot. It’s a popular notion that you can’t buy happiness and, while that is strictly true, there is no “Happiness in a Can”, what you can buy are opportunities for greater happiness.
The question then becomes one of where you should spend your money to get those greater opportunities for happiness.
One easy place to begin is with basic living needs. Healthy food and water, safe shelter, basic clothing, and adequate security. Global studies of happiness have clearly shown that meeting these basic wellbeing needs is one area where you can truly buy happiness.
The mistake many of us in highly developed nations make is in exaggerating what “basic” means. We think that what our neighbors have, or what we see on television is what we must have and that this level is “basic” when the reality is that what you really need is probably much less.
Happiness in Your Home
Let’s take basic shelter, for example. Could you be happy living in a hotel room? What about in a tee pee Or living as a couple with newborn in a small motor home? How about a tent? Or what about a family of 4 and a large dog on a 35 foot sailboat?
The right answer is “Yes.”
Some of the happiest people I know lived or are living the happiest times of their lives in just such conditions. I can tell you from first-hand experience that you don’t need much shelter to be happy, just enough to feel safe and secure. Let me tell you about one family of them.
Kathy, Cal, their two daughters, Fran and Anne, and the family Labrador Retriever, Hanna, live on a pretty 35 foot sailboat in scenic Annapolis, Maryland. Kathy and Cal commute together an hour or more each way to work in Washington, DC. Here’s what Kathy told me about their life:
“Sure, the boat is small but all summer we live outside in the cockpit most of the time. The kids even prefer to sleep there pretty much year-round. In the winter, we have a big, cheerful yellow and white striped tent that we put over the boat that makes everyday feel sunny. The kids sleep in sleeping bags and we have a really good heater that keeps it warm in the cabin, even too warm sometimes.
“We live in a marina where there are other live-aboards and the kids have friends here. In the evening, I take Hanna out and throw a ball for her in the parking lot. She often goes for a swim (the problem is keeping her out of the water). She hates it when I hose her off afterwards.
“We have one rule on the boat: she must be ready to sail in fifteen minutes. That means we don’t leave a lot of junk lying around and it also means we sail a lot more often. If we come home from work on a nice evening we can go for a sail, so it’s not just longer weekend trips or our summer vacation sails around the Chesapeake Bay.
“There are some sacrifices we’ve had to make and some inconveniences of living on a boat. I miss my aunt’s china set and I have to carry a measuring tape in my purse to make sure things I buy in the grocery store will fit in the cabinets but it’s worth it.”
The sailboat, like any home, was a major expense for Kathy and Cal but it was much more than just a home. It was the source of countless hours of adventure, fun, learning, challenge, and success. It placed them in a beautiful setting around like-minded neighbors and friends, and gave them the chance to live a lifestyle of fulfillment and happiness, happiness they could, in part, buy.
Shopping for Happiness
As you can see from Kathy and Cal’s story, you can buy happiness, or at least the opportunity for happiness. What is key is how you spend your money.
Instead of opting for a larger home, they opted for a larger experience. An experience that went a long way towards satisfying many of their essential WE PROMISE needs.
When you think about spending money, think about how that spending will improve your life. Think beyond the simple pleasure you get from your new purchase and look at what it will do for you in the long run. What you’ll often find is that buying experiences or things that enable experiences is more valuable than buying things for their own sake.
Try to see how you can use your money to maximal effect across the full range of your WE PROMISE needs. By spending wisely you can buy more opportunities for happiness.
The Dark Side of Buying Happiness
Happiness is a tricky business. To be happy you need to find balance in life for all of your WE PROMISE needs. When you buy things to improve that balance you have to be careful because things come with a price that isn’t on the tag: ownership.
Humans, for good or ill, are materialistic. We like our stuff. We feel pain and sadness at their loss. We mourn for all the time, money, and effort we put into acquiring our things when they are gone.
As a result, we spend a lot more time, money, and effort protecting what we already have. All of which works against our happiness.
If you buy something that brings you greater opportunities for happiness, say a motor home, a boat, or even the latest electronic gadget, you also have to consider the indirect costs for that purchase. Assuming you buy it on credit, you have to work to pay for it. You also have to work to pay to secure and store it when you aren’t using it, work to pay for the costs of using it when you do, work to pay to maintain it, and, eventually, maybe even pay to get rid of it.
All that extra work limits your free time and, unless your work truly makes you happy, odds are the thing you bought to make you happier will actually make you less happy overall.
The key here is making sure that what you invest your hard earned money in will actually, overall and after careful consideration, enhance your opportunities for happiness.
Often that will mean making purchases that are well below your means. Things that will have minimal long-term costs relative to your long-term income. And it means purchasing experiences directly instead of the possibility of those experiences.
Buying Happiness – A Shopper’s Guide
Since it is the ownership of these potentially happiness-giving but in reality happiness-limiting things that is the problem, why not rent some of them?
Don’t buy the boat, charter it. Don’t buy the motor home, rent it. Don’t buy the vacation home, let someone else do that and pay them for their trouble.
That way, if you change your mind, find something else that makes you happier, or decide that working less or starting your own business (and probably working more) is what you want to do, you can.
Look for purchases that you can pay for in cash, will not have large on-going expenses, and are easy to store. Good shoes for the sport of your choice, simple equipment like golf clubs or skis, or a bicycle, perhaps might be well within reach.
Buy experiences. Go see live performances, travel to exotic locales, take the free time you gain from not having to work quite so hard to visit friends or make new ones. Get the time to go for a walk or free yourself to move to a smaller but more happiness-enabling home.
Look carefully at your WE PROMISE needs and explore your personal Happiness Essentials (you can use our Happiness Planner to do this) to make sure that where you spend your money is where you will gain the most overall happiness.
What Not To Buy
Use caution when buying things that catch your eye. Beauty, while one of your Happiness Essentials in the Environment category, can fool you into thinking that it alone will bring happiness.
Likewise, the pleasurable experience of buying something, the hunt successfully completed, taps into a primal place in your brain but that pleasure is fleeting. Be sure that what you get will help you in more than this immediate fashion.
There are no hard and fast rules about what you should or shouldn’t purchase. Each of us is unique in the exact degree of each of our Happiness Essentials. What is key is knowing yours and buying true to those needs.
Things don’t bring happiness. Aligning your life with your needs does. Money is just a tool to help make that process a bit easier, not the solution in itself.
P.S. Want to discover your needs? Try our PC and mobile-friendly Happiness Planner where you will gain the insight to make smarter buying decisions.