According to a recent study, money really can buy happiness. This study, from the nonpartisan Brookings Institute, attempts to demonstrate that counter to Richard Easterlin's much-referenced 1974 paper, money does lead to increased happiness. According to this new paper, people who live in more affluent countries are more satisfied than those who live in more poor ones, and more money is linked to greater happiness in individual countries.
Money may enable us to attain happiness, but it is certainly no guarantee of it, as has been evidenced by accounts of the unhappy rich. Happiness is based on what individuals value and how they strive to meet these values. Money plays an important role, but there is much more to it beyond dollars and cents.
While there are certainly questions about this study's approach and accuracy (for example, the table on page 12 which presents one Gallup poll with a sample size of eight people as evidence), the issue of the happiness-money juncture is, in many ways, a philosophical one.
Money certainly brings more freedom of choice in life. There is a wide difference in the dining experiences and thought processes of the shopper who counts calories to maximize their money, and the shopper who buys a premium ice product. It is generally agreed that there is a monetary “satiation point” beyond which an individual’s happiness is negligibly better as income rises. This is an intuitive starting point. Money makes our lives better when we are comfortably well off, but it is not inherently a good.
Money can be used stupidly to further destructive ends. Money in the pursuit of pure hedonistic pleasure is troublesome. Philosopher Robert Nozick’s classic “experience machine,” a thought experiment which argues that purely virtual pleasurable experiences would be unsatisfying, shows this. We require more as humans than pure pleasure can provide.
Some approaches have found that money is used best to get pleasure by buying experience that we find will make us happy. This approach is supported by Nozick’s experiment and fits with what many of us see as the highlights of our lives: the time, places, and people that so enthralled us that we could never hope to forget them. Similarly, achieving goals (which money can always aid) has been found to increase happiness.
I, for one, prefer Samuel Johnson’s mindset that “It’s better to live rich than to die rich.” Money is made to be spent, and while saving is a virtue, sometimes blowing a paycheck on a bar tab is worth it. What I advocate is to make enough to be comfortable, live for what makes you happy, and minimize what upsets you. Minimizing life’s frustrations can be done with choices, not just money. My current work commute is five minutes; after growing up dealing with Chicago’s traffic this drive brings me joy every day.
There is an inherent flaw in assuming any measurement can quantify happiness, and as such these studies which attempt to show this will always be met with skepticism. No one doubts that money makes life easier, but its rash to neglect life's complexities.