Can Money Really Buy Happiness?

First published in Trespass Magazine.

It has been said that money can’t buy happiness. I tend to agree. It has also been said that whomever believes money can’t buy happiness simply doesn’t know where to shop. I tend to agree with that, too. I’m stuck, somewhere in the middle, in the case of money vs. happiness. And I’m not sure there is going to be a clear winner anytime soon.

I believe money is inextricably linked with our happiness. That money, and the things it can buy you, affects our happiness greatly. Material items make us happy. That is not to say we would be unhappy without material items, because I’m sure we’d all cope rather fine, but having material goods – cars, shoes, mobile phones, computers, books and all sorts of products – brings a certain amount of happiness to ones life. For some, it’s guitars. For others, it’s handbags. The item is irrelevant, the point is clear: stuff, things and objects that you buy, can and do make us happy.

I know the pleasure centres of my brain light up when I see pretty things draped in shop windows. I know that, for the forty-nine minutes after I purchase a brand spanking new pair of high heeled shoes, I walk down the city streets with my purchase swinging in its oversized carry bag like I own that street. Putting those shoes on weeks later and walking into a party makes me swagger just as earnestly as when I first bought them; because I like shoes. I love them. They make me happy.

Would I cease to exist if I was not able to purchase gorgeous shoes? Of course not. Am I happier for being able to buy them? Yes and no. I like them, so they make me happy, but I’d rather lose them than many other things in my life. I’d rather eat, or see a movie, or spend time with a friend than be alone with a shoe.

It’s a documented fact that richer individuals tend to be happier than poorer ones. That richer individuals, when surveyed, were twice as likely to say they were happier than poorer folks. That could be because they are privy to a different lifestyle – an easier and healthier lifestyle, a lifestyle that involved more quality and luxury, or both.

Think about the last time you bought something you really loved. Something you really wanted. Were you happy? My guess is yes.

Think about the last time you bought a good fitting, good quality item of clothing. You may have spent a large amount on it. An exceptional amount in fact. Think about how it feels when you wear that item, how the fabric touches your skin, compared to other clothing items you may have that just don’t compare. Think about how you feel when you wear it.

A friend of mine once made a big purchase: a leather jacket from Giorgio Armani selling at half price. Half price meant the cost of the jacket was $3000, as opposed to $6000. I am not joking. It was the most stunning, beautiful tan leather jacket I had ever caressed. When he wore it people actually gasped. Did he love it? Oh yes, he did. So much so that on New Years Eve when a small splosh of red wine landed on his sleeve he panicked and immediately rushed it to a very expensive, very experienced dry cleaner. To cut to the chase; the drycleaners permanently stained the entire sleeve, and inset, of his jacket. It was no longer wearable. It looked like something you’d find in a dumper. He was devastated. I was too, for him and his pennies. What ensued was a battle between an angry man and a terrible dry cleaner. Court cases nearly erupted, and, without dragging out the story, my friend, after a very long time, finally and luckily received his money back – for the whole value of the jacket.

I use this story to highlight a point – money often has a lot to do with perception and value. What you perceive to be important, and what you value as being so. My friend spent years searching for the perfect leather jacket and he finally found one, one he thought was going to be an investment that lasted the rest of his life. The jacket for him was a mark of success, and a signifier of change. If he could only get the perfect jacket, he could secure the perfect life.

As you know, the beautiful jacket never made it as far as a lifetime. Depending on how you look at it, the whole exercise – searching for years for a jacket, finding one, spending an incredible, even ridiculous amount on one, then having it ruined and spending months and months trying to gain back the value of it – was an entirely pointless one. He is now back where he started, with no jacket and still searching for the perfect jacket to supplement the perfect life.

Conversely, what about this: for the few times he got to wear that utterly amazing jacket, his entire being transformed. His confidence soared. He looked simply incredible. He felt like he was on top of the world. He made men and women swoon. All because of one material item, one jacket. For the few times he wore that jacket he became a happier version of himself. He threw himself into situations that he normally wouldn’t have, situations that resulted in more happy moments. Can you put a price on that? Was his happiness a direct result of wearing a piece of designer clothing? Is that shallow? Would he have been just as confident and happy in a leather jacket from a generic chain store?

Early in 2009, researchers at Stanford University in California gave a cross section of subjects the exact same wine, in different bottles, labelled with different price tags. Most of the subjects said they liked the expensive wine more than the cheaper one, which is somewhat impossible seeing as they were in actuality all the same. Here’s where the line is blurred however: researchers undertook MRI brain imaging scans whilst the subjects drank their wine and their brains were registered as experiencing more pleasure whilst drinking the more “expensive” wine. How can that be explained? I put it down to perception and value. The subjects believed the expensive wine carried more value, and that they as a result were more valuable as people. That others would perceive them as being more valuable for drinking expensive wine.

Personally, I choose wine by the pictures on their labels. Some are winners, some are binners, but I give them all a shot. I’ve dined at the most expensive restaurant in Melbourne where the waiter searched the underground cellar for some incredible wine for our table to enjoy. It was fantastic wine, but I’ve had $10 bottles just as good. I don’t ever want to be the kind of person that feels as though their value is a direct result of their drink, handbag label or postcode. I hope I never am. I’d rather be valued for my contribution, or intelligence, or creativity, or ingenuity.

Does that mean I cannot buy Giorgio Armani heels, of which I did that very day my friend bought his jacket, and not stride more confidently? Not be slightly happier for owning them? No, it does not. I couldn’t care less if, upon dying, I was remembered for my shoe collection just as much as my intellectual contribution. Both define me. Both are part of me. Why does there have to be one or another? Maybe, at the end of the day, money doesn’t actually verse happiness. Maybe it has nothing, or everything, to do with it. I don’t have all the answers but what I do know is that happiness can be bought. It can also be sold. It can also be created. I know that things and objects can inspire you just as much as people and art. That value does not have a limit. That perception is an individual thing. That maybe, through the mist of all the purchases, gold coins and coloured notes, happiness has always been there and will always be there. Maybe we, all of us, are the ones trying to mask it or define it or subject it rather than leaving it to just be.

Image credit: All Movie Photo

One thought on “Can Money Really Buy Happiness?

  1. I’ve been discussing money=happiness recently and got onto thinking about the Eastern world and how they seem a lot happier than the Western world at times. Indian people know how to part without booze and they ranked in the top 6 in one survery on happiest countries in the world. We reguarly hear that places like Finland etc are the happiest but those research programs often have pre-concieved notions on what it takes to make a country happy. Things like life expectancy, home, health-care, and income. In a study conducted by another survery that simply asked ‘ how happy are you? ‘, the following countries scored the highest: Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Puerto Rico.
    My point? Whilst money makes us Westerners happy as we are able to buy things like nice jakets and shoes, we may actually be completely missing the key to lasting happiness.

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