Money Can't Buy Happiness...Or Can it?: Spending Tips for Creating Your Own Happiness

A friend recently sent me Michael Norton’s TED Talk, “How to buy happiness”.  I was intrigued — mainly because I have been in the camp that posits that more money in-and-of-itself does not a happy person make.  A widespread stance in the literature is that once basic needs have been provided for, increases in wealth do little to improve personal well-being.  We all know rich people who are relatively miserable, and others with little who seem to have figured out the secrets of a happy life.

However, this talk made me add qualifiers to my position.  Let me explain...

In his talk, Norton suggests that money can, in fact, buy us happiness.  The key is really how we use the money we have.  Norton’s research has found that spending money on others makes people happier than spending it on themselves.  Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter the amount we spend, or what the money is spent on.  We don’t need to purchase extravagant gifts or venture to save the world.  The thoughtful little things we do with our money also make us feel good.

Norton’s research supports what I have long appreciated on a visceral level.  It’s why it feels so great to surprise your kid’s teacher with a coffee or hand an unexpected tip to the gas station attendant.  (And as someone who once worked at a gas station, I can tell you it feels great to be on the receiving end, too!).  

Creating Your Own Happiness: Selective Spending to Strengthen Human Connection

Other research that seems to fit my personal experience and observations comes from Cornell professor Thomas Gilovich.  His studies support the notion that money spent on experiences is more likely to result in enduring happiness than that spent on material things.  Shared experiences, not shared purchases, improve family time and build lasting memories.

So what can we take away from this?  To me, it once again comes down to the fundamental importance of human connection.  Happiness grows through behaviours that enable us to interact positively with the people we meet — those we encounter in our communities, our work, and our travels — and when we endeavor to strengthen our connection with family and friends.

Secrets of a Happy Life: A Happy Life is a Connected Life

Where does spending money on ourselves fall short?  Many people appreciate the high from buying themselves material items, and this can give a well-deserved boost from time-to-time.  However, perhaps it misses the mark on generating more lasting happiness because it is often an insular venture, one that is more likely to isolate than connect.  The struggle to buy-to-fit-in or keep up with the Joneses may also create an artificial sense of belonging.  Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy my beautiful house and believe fashion can be a fun way to celebrate aesthetics and creative self-expression.  However, it would be a mistake for us to think that possessions can “make” us happy or give us a good life.  Money does not create a positive home environment or help your family thrive.  You do.  True and deep human connection and belonging cannot be purchased.

When we include and embrace others — whether through day-to-day or chance encounters, talking from the heart, or spending our money on them or experiences with them — we nurture our social connectedness.  Similarly, the person on the receiving end of the expenditure gets the value-beyond-cost gift of feeling that sense of ‘I have been seen...and I matter’.

Dr. Tara’s Sunshine Reflection: Kindness & Gratitude are Part of the Happiness-Generating Equation

It seems to me that another important part of “buying happiness” actually relates to kindness and gratitude.  For many of us, gift-giving and gestures of generosity are part of an overall practice of gratitude.  We are expressing appreciation on many levels: for what we ourselves have, for the person on the receiving end, for the privilege of connecting with them, and for the shared understanding of the pleasure the gift provides.  As we have discussed before, both an “attitude of gratitude” and actively engaging in acts of kindness have been shown to generate happiness within us.  I invite you to check-out my earlier blogs and think about your own spending patterns and how you feel.  Consider ways to use your money to demonstrate kindness, generosity and gratitude.  Perhaps in the process, you will also discover a greater sense of connectedness, personal satisfaction and happiness.