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Why Having More Won’t Make Us Happy

Gregory Wendt, CFP | Friday October 30th, 2009 | 5 Comments


money-happyAs a financial adviser, I regularly meet the “haves and have-mores.” One thing I have learned for sure: Having more does not necessarily mean having more happiness.

Barbara Walters interviewed billionaire media mogul David Geffen in a conversation published in More Than Money magazine: “She said, ‘O.K., David, now that you’re a billionaire, are you happy?’ He shot back without hesitation: ‘Barbara, anybody who believes money makes you happy doesn’t have money.'”

Of course I think to a point, money actually does buy you happiness, or at least in our society money provides the mechanism to get basic human needs met. Take someone who is truly in poverty and a bit of money will actually, truly, make that person and his/her family more happy – they’ll get food, shelter, some labor saving devices, they’ll get education, they’ll get leisure time.

What’s right is to say that after basic needs are met the marginal return of happiness per dollar declines rapidly, at some point every additional dollar means virtually nothing.

Our civilization has conditioned us to believe that more is better, because we believe simply more makes us happy. We all know it’s not true, but many of us are not willing to do the “shadow work” to overcome our consumer addiction in our day-to-day lives.

I find that many in our circle of friends in the sustainability movement – myself included – are living lives of accumulation and consumption even with a “modest” lifestyle. Yet ultimately we know that more “stuff” won’t make us happy.

I was speaking about this matter with my friend Marc Barasch, an accomplished author and Executive Director of the Green World Campaign. He said: “The Buddhist tradition states that craving keeps the world of Samsara [eternal suffering] turning. What people want is love and community and the society tends to systematically undermine the means of attaining that, and consumerism is the addictive substitute. The pleasure of the addiction becomes dry and insipid and becomes simply maintenance dosage to avoid greater and greater pain. And it is this collective maintenance of our consumerism addiction that habitually and automatically devours the planet’s resources.”

So, since you and I have grown up in this system, we are best able to recognize the heart of the matter and begin to deal with the problem at its core – inside us. Simply put, in order for us all to manifest the sustainable world built on loving kindness to all beings, we just have to get down to this crucial “shadow work” inside of our own heart of hearts. Simply, we are nourished by fulfilling relationships, by love, community, beauty, nature. To find these pleasures, we need not consume something, or spend money. We just need to reorient our means of gaining satisfaction in our lives, and that requires a shift in consciousness.

Ultimately, this work of overcoming our rampant consumer addiction can only be done inside ourselves. We don’t need anyone else to know what I am referring to, and we don’t need anyone else to do this work inside us. The opportunity is right here, right now.


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  • Walter

    Of course this will all naturally lead down one path. As it becomes generally accepted that money will not buy happiness, the government will be more than happy to alleviate you of that which will not buy you happiness. In other words, get ready for higher taxes.

  • Smith School of Business

    I think it’s actually more of a relative equation depending on your level of essentials expense. As long as you have more income than that essentials expense, you move from the happiness generated from survival to happiness generated from internal incentives. That type of happiness is less influenced by the amount of money, and more influenced by the quality received in spending it. An example to clarify would be the joy you receive buying yourself a movie and watching it, versus the greater joy you would receive in buying someone else the movie and watching it with them.

  • John

    The lovingkindness concept might provide a good way for some ego-centrists to feel better about their suffering and wants, but it will do little to solve the real problems of the world. So what if money can’t buy happiness, the making of money created plenty of suffering and wasted lives for many more people. It’s the violence, social disservice, and wealth disparities that are making most of us unhappy. I’m not happy because greedy goofballs like Dave Geffen can be billionaires by entertaining non-intellectuals to death. I’m not happy because the worlds’ wealthy have perpetrated war on innocent working people for hundreds of years. I’m not happy because G.W. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, the CIA, Paki’s ISI, and other international war criminals are still free. This article is more evidence of the great distraction of celebrity culture. It also fails to address the fundamental problem of putting oneself at the center of the universe. Eat the rich.

  • http://www.happiness-after-midlife.com Dr. Frank Bonkowski

    In “The Soul of Money,” Lynne Twist wrote these thought-provoking words of wisdom and hope: “…we can move towards thrift rather than accumulation; we can move toward appreciating what we love rather than being afraid of what we’ve lost. We can focus our attention and intention not on what we’re losing, but on what we already have that’s so valuable and nourishing to us. And we can stop clamoring for more of what we don’t really need and take care of what we have.” For more on happiness and money, check http://www.happiness-after-midlife.com/midlife-challenges.html

  • http://www.ursulaproject.org Jeannette

    Nice article, especially as I was alerted to it so soon after my introduction in pictures to overconsumption’s side effects at http://www.chrisjordan.com/

    My moral of the story take-home is to serve others as possible and share the wealth in whatever form. Thanks for the thoughts, Greg.