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What Do You Need to Be Happy?

When a University of Michigan survey asked people what they believed would improve their quality of life the answer given most often was, “More money.”

A man sitting at a table using a laptop

In their book The Day America Told the Truth, James Patterson and Peter Kim asked, “If you could change one thing about your life what would it be?” The number one response at 64 percent was, “Greater wealth.”

A University of Southern California study found that greater wealth didn’t translate into greater happiness for many of the 1,500 people surveyed annually over three decades. USC economist Richard Easterlin said, “Many people are under the illusion that the more money we make, the happier we’ll be,” but, according to the study, that isn’t true.

We know from other well-respected studies that fewer Americans are “very happy” today than in the 1950s despite having far more money, bigger homes and more stuff. In 1950 there were 3,000 shopping malls in this country, by 2000 there were 45,025. We have more money, we have more stuff but clearly, greater affluence has not translated to greater happiness.

Are there any circumstances under which more money will bring happiness? The truth is that if you are living in poverty, having more money will make a positive difference in your quality of life and yes, you will be happier. But once your basic material needs are met, many experts agree that having more money might be nice but it’s not likely to make you a lot happier, if at all.

The problem is that most of us just don’t know what we really believe about money. We can’t live with it but we can’t live without it, either. We think that more of it will fix all of our problems even though we prove month after month that aren’t very good at managing what we already have.

A recent gathering of friends at my home stirred up some provoking conversation. One person suggested that we have a confusion of terms. When people say they want happiness, what they’re really looking for is contentment—that feeling of satisfaction that does not go away once the carpet is a few months old, the car has lost its “newness” or the holidays are over. He went on to suggest that happiness is the result of a “happening” and when the event is over, the happiness goes away, too. The contentment we seek comes with satisfaction and fulfillment that are not tied to specific events but rather based upon things that do not change like warm family relationships, connecting to God and expressions of sincere gratitude.

I think our resident philosopher is really on to something. If nothing else he certainly made all of us think.

So where do you weigh in on this subject? In your heart do you believe that more money would make you happier? How much would it take to make you really happy? Or have you discovered a source of true contentment and found it is not tied to money?

I’d love to know your thoughts. Leave your comments below. I’ll compile them in an upcoming column.

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  1. Marci Casey says:

    Happiness is in knowing my God and my Savior. He is ALWAYS faithful to provide for my needs. Understanding the difference between needs and wants releases me from stress, keeps me debt-free, and makes spending choices SO much easier.

  2. Lorri says:

    When you don’t have money (I have been there), it’s easy to fixate on the idea that money will make you happy/solve your problems. When our money problems turned around (mostly due to my husband’s better job, but also helped by my frugal ways), we were able to see which things in our life were helped by more money and which things were not. You need good friends and/or family, and I also believe you need some kind of purpose in your life to be truly happy. More money has not made me happier, but it has helped me to worry less and sleep better at night. As I get older (I’m in my 50s), I realize that stress really does take a toll on my health. My family unexpectedly grew this past year (my teenage daughter’s pregnancy), and though there are challenges with that that have nothing to do with money, I feel more secure knowing that we can help our daughter and precious grandson without going into debt. My goal is to never forget what it felt like to always worry about money, so that I can keep to my budget of saving/investing as much as possible. Another thing about getting older: you learn that emergencies do hit you, sooner or later, which really highlights the need for an emergency fund.

  3. Cheryl Norton Sewell says:

    My husband retired a couple of years ago and our income was cut in half. Surprisingly, I find that by making cuts to our spending, we are able to live comfortably and don’t feel like we are missing out. We spend our money on what’s really important to us and enjoy finding new ways to save. A side benefit is that by not eating out nearly as often as we did, we’re losing a little weight and when we do go out, it’s a treat that we really enjoy!

  4. lees says:

    sleep in the street for about 2 nights and then tell me money doesn’t buy happiness……people that already have money always say that..Money gives you freedom and choices, you can call your own shots and pick your own mizery if you have too. It sure as heck helps!

  5. Mary Marlatt says:

    Like Margie and others below, I feel that if I had enough to not worry so much about paying the bills and never having any cushion for catastrophe, I would be “happier.” For life not to be such a struggle — I have a meeting tomorrow and since we are down to one car, it’s causing an issue. With my mobility issues, getting a bus is also a problem. But I was hesitant to try to change the meeting because I didn’t want to use either my poor-ness or my weakness as an “excuse” because I want this person to think well of me (it’s up to him if I get into graduate school — and eventually make more money. My employer is paying for school). Stuff like that makes me “unhappy.”

  6. Jane says:

    My husband is in ministry, and we’ve never had a lot of money, but the Lord has always provided for us. I enjoy the challenge of being creative in our home and with meals, repurposing what we have, making something functional and beautiful or coming up with a delicious, thrifty meal. I agree that expensive “stuff” doesn’t bring happiness…that comes with being thankful for God’s presence in my life, family, friends, health…the things money can’t buy.

  7. Richard Rorex says:

    More money creates more problems than it resolves. I have a garage full of ‘stuff’ that has been acquired over the last 50 years or so. None of it brings happiness. Like your resident philosopher, I find happiness in my time with God, whether it be in church or home or even in the car going from place to place. Helping others also brings a sense of happiness or contentment that lasts a very long time. God has seen to it that I have enough income to keep me housed, fed and clothed. What would more money help in that regard?

  8. Tiana says:

    I remember a few times wishing I had more money because I just KNEW that would make me happier. However, a few years ago, I changed things up. I decided that to be content and pleased with my life, eliminating debt would be it. Once I switched from wishing I had more money to focusing on my debt, great things started happening. Last year, we were able to pay off our debt (except for our low mortgage) and let me tell you, I have been “content” ever since. I wake up perkier; the days are always brighter; I was able to focus on my health and lost 30 lbs; when I lost the stress of debt, I gained “me” back. I thank God every single day for my blessings!

  9. njjc1234 says:

    I am a single mother of three grown children. I live in a modest home. More money would make me more content because I am barely getting by as it is. If I had more income I would not have to worry when something in the home breaks or I need a new roof, for example. I would like to know that I have enough to cover all basic expenses, which includes things like the new roof, when the time comes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. And from what I’ve read of previous studies, that is indeed the key to contentment — having enough that you don’t have to worry about the next home repair or the real estate taxes coming due. Of course having a strong faith helps, too, but most people are more content when they need not be concerned over the next minor catastrophe in the home.

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