Happiness on a Budget

The other week WalletPop had a post Want happiness? Forget money – get therapy instead in which was explained that money can’t buy happiness, unless you spend it on psychotherapy.

Perce_cliff_house This was based on a study (discussed a little more completely here but not, as far as I can tell, available on the web) done by two British professors. They found that £800 worth of therapy was the happiness equivalent of a pay rise of £25,000.

Alas, this was not experimental science. As much fun as it would have been, the researchers did not choose people at random and give them piles of cash or toss them onto the couch. All they did was find that people who themselves decided to get therapy experienced the same increase in self-reported happiness as those that got a big raise.

The authors use this finding to argue that law courts should not compensate people for pain and suffering with mere money. Instead, they should be given time with a qualified therapist.

Needless to say, both researchers are professors of psychology.

Studies like these invite us to make the rather commonplace observation that money doesn’t make us happier, or at least not by as much as we seem to expect before we get it. And yet we all know that money has got to make us a little happier. Cautionary tales of lottery winners notwithstanding, nobody would really turn down a gift of a large sum. That can only mean that we all know we’d be at least a little bit happier with the money than without.

But the larger point, that wealth is not the ultimate indicator or driver of happiness, that there are plenty of happy poor folk and miserable rich ones, is as valid as it is obvious. Has anybody ever really argued otherwise? Sure, we would always prefer more money to less, but that does not mean that material gain is the sum total of our desires in life.

We, and I am speaking of humans in general and Americans in particular, are an industrious and ambitious lot. Yes, we like our leisure time in front of the good old 50" flat screen TV, but we spend a lot of time on that thing we call work. And we work in amounts that are far in excess of what is biologically necessary. If our only concern was acquiring the amount of food, clothing, and shelter needed to keep us alive, most of us would hardly work at all.

So why do we work so much? Contrary to what we like to tell each other, it’s not, exactly, for the money. The money is important, but the earning of it is as important to us as the spending or saving. What we make is, to quote a cliché from decades past, how we keep score.

And the state of being without work, unemployment, is only secondarily an economic problem for most of us in it. I was reminded of this by an interview with Jason Reitman, director of Up in the Air, a movie about a guy who lays people off for a living. As research, he interviewed some actual unemployed people and had a revelation that might not have been so surprising to somebody who had ever worked outside Hollywood.

"If you’d asked me before I did this movie, ‘What’s the worst thing about losing your job in this type of economy?’ I would’ve probably said the loss of income," Reitman explains. "But as I talked to these people, that rarely came up. What people said, time and time again, was: ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ … It was really about a lack of purpose. They would say, you know, ‘After I finish this interview, I’m going to go get in my car, and I have nowhere to be.’ And I can’t imagine thinking that every day."

Having someplace to go every day makes us happy. Doing whatever it is that we do there well makes us happier. And getting paid a whole lot of money, with which we can buy cool stuff and, as necessary, psychotherapy, makes us happier still.

Of the items on the very long menu of things that bring happiness, therapy is not the most cost effective. Work is. Not only doesn’t it cost money, they actually pay you. Usually.


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