Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Who usually says this? Normally, people who feel that they do not have enough money say it. They direct the phrase against people they perceive as “rich,” and who they assume have “fewer problems” than they do because they have more money. The phrase barely conceals bitterness. In essence, it says: “Well, he might be able to pay all his bills and go on vacation when he wants, but all that will not make him inwardly feel good.” At the same time, the speaker takes pride in his lower position by thinking: “He might have all those things, but I still feel better than he does.”

On a superficial level, the phrase is correct. Strictly speaking, money by itself cannot trigger the mental processes necessary to generate happiness. After all, happiness is a mental state. It is not property. Money is a means of exchange. It can purchase “legal rights” to goods, services and land. These are not living things; they are “subjects” that can be “owned.” It is impossible to “own” a mental state. A mental state can only arise through biochemical processes in the brain. Those processes, in turn, arise from internal and external circumstances. Money cannot buy these processes. In that sense, you cannot walk into a store and say: “I would like to buy 30 minutes of true happiness, please.” You cannot fill out a deed or title to “permanent happiness” and convey it to another person for a price.

But that does not mean that money cannot influence whether we are happy or unhappy. Sigmund Freud wrote that “happiness” does not exist whenever “unhappiness” is present. Unhappiness, according to Freud, “is much less difficult to experience” than happiness. Civilization and its Discontents, p. 26. Freud lists three main sources for unhappiness: (1) Our own body; (2) the external world; and (3) our relations to other men. Id. Money is relevant primarily to “the external world.” Freud writes that the “external world…may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction.” Id. That means that external circumstances may cause untold unhappiness. In a commercial world, those external circumstances might include destitution, poverty, homelessness or unemployment. Those external circumstances may then implicate the body in the form of hunger, cold, pain, discomfort, anxiety and disease. Yet money can influence our position in the external world. With money, it is possible to avoid homeless, poverty and destitution. To that extent, having money can profoundly restrain a major source of potential unhappiness in our lives.

Money plays an extremely important role in civilized life. Although civilized man need not physically compete for hunting grounds or good shelter, he engages in an alternate competition: The quest for money. Money allows him to eat, drink and find shelter in a civilized community. While he may not have to hunt, forage or build shelter, he needs money to secure the essential “external circumstances” he needs to live. Without it, his “external circumstances” become dire, and those circumstances impact his body. When the external world “rages against” man, he becomes unhappy. When his body suffers under the external world’s constant punishment, he becomes doubly unhappy. But when he has money to improve his external circumstances, he eliminates a source of potential unhappiness. With that, he fulfills one criterion on the road to happiness. Money alone will not make him happy, but it nonetheless provides him a significant means to avoid unhappiness.

This background only partially explains the phrase: “Money can’t buy you happiness.” To fully comprehend what these words suggest, we must look more deeply into our commercial world. Despite the fact that money is not an automatic gateway to happiness, many people in civilized life believe that it is. Those without sufficient money confront the “external world” at a serious disadvantage, particularly in an economically unequal society. To these people, money problems are the only problems. Every day, they confront financial obligations: Rent, loan debt, child care, food, heat, gas, electricity… the list goes on; and it never seems to end. They know if they fail to fulfill their obligations, they may go homeless, or otherwise land in some uncomfortable position. This fear transforms into constant anxiety about “paying the bills.” It generates “uncertainty about the future.” These are negative mental states. While these negative mental states are present, it is impossible for economically disadvantaged people to feel truly happy.

Yet a delusion arises here. To a person with constant “money problems,” it appears that money will solve everything. After all, such a person feels constant pressure, anxiety and uncertainty about his financial situation. That anxiety dominates his mind. He wishes for nothing more than to dispel the anxiety. He focuses obsessively on money and comes slowly to believe that it will free him from anxiety. “If only I had more money,” he thinks, “I would be able to pay my bills and not be anxious anymore.” In other words, to a person with insufficient money, the external world generates unhappiness, and money seems to offer a way to overcome the external world’s “overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction.”

Class distinction and commercialism play a role, too. For one reason or another, there are far more people with “money problems” in this society than those who do not have “money problems.” The poor and economically stressed far outnumber those who can comfortably pay their bills. Yet mass consumer culture exposes everyone in our society—rich and poor alike—to seductive, unattainable images of happiness. The language of mass consumer culture is advertising; and advertising is relentless. Advertising tells us that we can make ourselves happy if we “own this product or that product,” or “buy this home or that home,” or “have this car or that car.” Advertising and mass media show us images of “success” and “wealth,” and those images lead us to envy those who are “successful and wealthy.” We think to ourselves: “Those people all seem to be happy. After all, they have enough money to pay their bills and afford all those luxuries.” To a person with insufficient money, these images—and the constant advertising barrage—remind him how unhappy he is because he does not have enough money. “I am worried about my car note,” he thinks, “while that guy is driving around Miami beach in a drop-top Bentley. He’s happy. He’s not worried about a thing.” To that extent, mass consumer culture, advertising and an unequal class system combine to convince people with insufficient money that money can indeed make them happy.

But what explains the bitterness inherent in the phrase: “Money can’t buy you happiness”? Although people with insufficient money believe that money will immediately make them happy, they feel spite for those who do not have money problems. When the poor man sees the rich man driving through Miami in the drop-top Bentley, he not only thinks that the rich man is not worried about money; rather, he also tries to justify his own position by expressing resentment toward a person he feels to be “happier” than he is. “Sure, he might not be worried about money,” thinks the poor man. “But money can’t buy him happiness. I have a loving wife and children. I might not be able to afford my car note, but at least I know there is a person in my life who loves me.” He feels bitter toward the rich man, but searches for something in his own life that makes him “better.”

To some extent, the poor man is right. Money alone cannot generate the mental processes necessary to create “true happiness” in the human brain. Generally speaking, the “external world” inflicts unhappiness far more on those without money in our society than those with money. But the fact remains that “true happiness” requires more than an absence of unhappiness caused by external forces. After all, the rich man in the Bentley may not have to worry about bills, expenses or rent. But he may inwardly feel extremely lonely, depressed or worthless. Maybe no one loves him. Maybe his wife died and he is unhappy because he does have anyone left in his life. These are all genuine mental processes that easily can cause unhappiness without regard to money.

Put simply, those without money have a limited view about happiness. Because money pressures create constant anxiety for them, they come to believe that money will free them from unhappiness and make them happy. Yet those with money face an entirely different set of challenges. How often do we read about Hollywood stars, millionaires and other rich people struggling with depression, expressing their disaffection with life, drinking, abusing drugs or even committing suicide? These people do not have financial problems, yet somehow they became unhappy. In my eyes, this shows that “money problems” are talismanic for those who have them. Money dominates the mental lives of people who do not have enough. They do not understand that happiness depends on far more than having sufficient cash to fend off the “external world.” They are right when they say “Money can’t buy you happiness,” but they do not grasp that money can eliminate a major potential source of unhappiness from the external world.

But the “unhappy rich” show us that this does not end the question. When a person has freed himself from the “money/happiness talisman,” he replaces it with a new “happiness talisman.” When money no longer provides a source for potential unhappiness, other pressures will. Freud named two other possibilities: (1) the body; and (2) relations to other men. Rich people can get injured or sick, damaging their bodies and inflicting pain. They can also feel intense disappointment, sadness and true unhappiness when their “relationships to other people” end in failure, deception, intrigue or bitterness. A man may have billions of dollars, but he nonetheless may feel like killing himself because his wife betrayed his trust or his son somehow disappointed him. Money does not cause unhappiness in these situations. And no amount of money will magically buy happiness for these unhappy rich folks. Freud was right: “It is much less difficult to experience unhappiness than happiness.”

Having said this, I have no pity for unhappy rich people. For better or worse, those with money face less potential for unhappiness than poorer people. Poor people, by contrast, face potential unhappiness from the same sources as rich people, plus the money source. To that extent, it is far more likely for a poor person to feel unhappiness than a rich one. Rich people can at least “narrow the field” of unhappiness by eliminating money worries. Poor people have no such luxury. They face potential unhappiness from the whole gamut of human experience. The rich do not. In that sense, I concur wholeheartedly with David Mamet’s assessment: “Never feel sorry for a guy who has his own airplane.”

Money may not buy you happiness. But it sure makes life a lot easier. And it’s hard to pity someone who has an easy lot in life.


SteveW said...

Fascinating that French billionaire who lost $3BB last year (net worth from $12 to $9 BB in a year) and committed suicide. People respond to absolute circumstances and to the time derivative of circumstances (ie the rate of change of circumstances).

It's another fascinating characteristic of people that they quickly internalize their present circumstance. If you give someone a big raise, they are happy for a day (or week, month, etc.) but then they normalize to the situation and then revert to their previous state of happiness (or lack).

I completely agree with your basic point - money doesn't mean happy, but lack of money can certainly mean unhappy. Having money is like Forrest Gump says, "That's good. One less thing."

marino77 said...

excellent thesis and postulation !
thanks for posting your link on the Pico Ayer "Happiness"article NYT comments section -
mark m