What Money Can’t Buy: Research on Happiness


“Happiness is not for sale.  Discussion of money and happiness span the history of mankind.  It would seem that wealth does not confer happiness.  In a 1957 study, about 35 percent of the population identified themselves happy.  Today, 30 percent of Americans call themselves happy.  This is despite a doubling in average family earning and despite the explosion in comforts, access to information and luxuries. . . .  After basic needs are met, wealth loses much of its power to create contentment or happiness.” – Dr.R Murali Krishna, MD, DLFAPA, Excerpted from The Pursuit of Happinesss: Characteristics of Happy People, World of Psychology.

The way we view money and interact with it on a daily basis affects all aspects of our life.  Yet too often, we are not intentional about how our views might shape our daily decisions and purchases.  As I’ve seen the things in my life I no longer need leave my home, I have questioned the ways I interact with money.  The journey to minimalism has posed this fundamental question in my life:  What do I really need to be happy?

Discussions of happiness are important because they give a central focus to the way we live on a daily basis.  As we begin to live more intentional lives, we see ways we can reconnect with ourselves.  We may even start to see that happiness is more about giving, rather than acquiring more.

In his TED talk, “The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance” Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor discusses that happiness is not something found in the external world, but rather, is cultivated by brain processes which can be changed through behavior.  He explains, “We need to reverse the formula for happiness and successes.. . . [we] follow a formula for success which is this: If I work harder I’ll be more successful, if I’m more successful then I’ll be happier. . . our brains work the opposite order. . .”   Achor suggests simple research-based behaviors can actually make us happy, such as expressing gratitude daily, journaling about positive experiences, doing exercise, practicing meditation, and extending random acts of kindness to others (Achor, TED talk, 2015).

Most researchers in the field of psychology find similar evidence that our daily behavior greatly influences our level of happiness in life.  According to an interview with Christopher Peterson at University of Michigan,

“People are always looking for the short-cuts. . .the seven easy steps. .  the magic formula, and I don’t think there are such things, not if you have to want to have a life worth living.”  He continues, “You have to work at it; do volunteer work, and if you can’t do volunteer work, pick up your neighbor’s newspaper and put it on their porch. Just really small things, if you do them over and over you will build the connections with people.. . .”

In fact, a Princeton study  by Noble-prize winning, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton, suggests that beyond a salary of $70,000, additional money does not show additional gains in happiness.  The study brings to light some issues related to how people view money. One such person was CEO Dan Price who decided to raise all his employees incomes to $70,000, and cut his pay from 1 million a year to 70,000 until profits caught up to pay for the increases (Cohen, One Company’s New Minimum Wage: 70,000 per year, NY Times, 2015).  In the NYT article, Cohen describes himself as a capitalist and business leader who saw the problems income equality created for his employees and realized he had an opportunity to effect change head-on.

As a result of the society’s interest in what determines social well-being, new theories of happiness are emerging.  Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology studies, proposed a  new theory of well-being to explain what makes people flourish in life.  He suggests 5 key areas of importance to well-being:

1.Positive Emotions


3.Positive Relationships



I was not sure when I began this journey, if getting rid of the excess in my life and desiring less, would really be beneficial, or just make small things easier on a daily basis, like getting ready in the morning.  But I am beginning to see that small things matter greatly.  It is the small things that make a lasting impact on day to day life.  By changing our perceptions and the way we interact with the world, these small things cascade into lasting life changes.   

Our family is finding a sense of happiness in the new things we have found on this journey:  the time it creates, the sense of peace in our less cluttered surroundings, and the ability to pursue things that matter to our heart and soul.  

Money can’t buy watching a sunset, or the feeling you get after a run.  Money can’t buy the sense of accomplishment for a job well-done, or the feeling of joy after helping someone out.  Money can’t buy love.  Like many things, money is a resource to use wisely, but it is not the source of happiness.  Living this idea intentionally has been perhaps one of my greatest teachings in the journey to minimalism.


2 thoughts on “What Money Can’t Buy: Research on Happiness

  1. This was a really insightful post. While I would definitely love to have a lot of money some day, and I don’t think it’s an inherently bad pursuit, it really helped me to consider why I want more money. Is it for status or to give me the opportunity to do more of the things I truly enjoy?


  2. Thanks Myles. I don’t think money is inherently bad, or good for that matter. I think you pose an interesting question. From experience I can tell you one thing: after a certain point, more things do not equate to more happiness. I was also reading this quote the other day that made me think that even the way we view things, like experiences matters too: ” “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” -Henry Miller I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is to see money as just a tool, but knowing that a purchase or even a trip, is not going to necessarily bring any happiness-it comes completely from within you. So follow not money, but the pursuit of what you want to do in life, that’s what matters. Hope that makes sense. Thanks for commenting.


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