At least, not how you think it will.
Do you ever fantasize about winning the lottery?
What do you imagine doing with all that money? Do you quit your job? Do you buy your dream home? Do you travel the world on a private yacht? Do you hire a professional chef, a nanny, a house cleaner?
Getting excited, yet?
There’s no doubt about it, having money is useful. It can buy you a lot of things. It can make life exciting, interesting, joyful, comfortable, and easy.
So, why the adage, money can’t buy happiness?
Doesn’t it seem obvious that we would be happy-er if we had the money to do all these things?
Money is complicated… and so are we
Human life is complicated. I mean, I can’t say for sure it’s any more complicated than a dog’s or a cow’s, but judging from their generally satisfied dispositions, I get the sense they at least don’t struggle with life the way we do.
For instance, they can’t imagine what it would be like to win tons of cash and have the freedom to do amazing things with it. Instead, they’re probably enjoying the smell of other animals’ feces and the taste of their cud. Hey — to each their own!
But, back to us humans…
Here’s the thing about winning a large sum of money: research shows that it won’t significantly impact your level of happiness or your mental health.
Nonsense, you think. If I’m swimming in cash like Scrooge McDuck, I know I’ll be happy!
Well, you might be wrong about that. Humans are terrible predictors of what will make them happy. We’re often wrong about how we anticipate we’ll feel, good or bad, in future situations. This is called miswanting, and it’s my new favourite word.
Why are we bad at predicting what will make us happy? This is one of the newer features of the human brain and natural selection is still working out the kinks. I guess we’ve been given the minimum viable product. Version 2.0 will arrive at a brain near you in a million years or so.
Anyway, here’s a clear example of a situation we’d never predict. When researchers compared the everyday happiness levels of lottery winners to recent victims of catastrophic accidents (people who had become paraplegic or quadriplegic), they found accident victims derived more happiness from activities like talking with a friend, watching TV, or eating breakfast.
What’s going on here?
This finding has something to do with what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill, which is our tendency to get used to things that once brought us pleasure. As time passes, what we do regularly becomes the norm and we derive less pleasure out of those activities than we did when they felt new and exciting.
This means you will, in all probability, return to the same baseline level of happiness you had before winning the lottery. Damn you, homeostasis!
But, this isn’t quite the whole story.
When you’re basic needs aren’t met, money matters — a lot. However, once you’ve reached an annual income of about $75,000, you won’t feel any happier earning more money.
Also, when it comes to the lottery, people who win tend to have a greater sense of overall life satisfaction compared to those who don’t. Life satisfaction refers to the thoughts people have about their lives, rather than the emotions they regularly feel.
So, you might evaluate your life as better, but you don’t necessarily experience life as “happier” on a moment to moment basis.
What does make us happier?
If you expect me to answer that question in 500 words or less, you are sorely mistaken. People have been searching for this answer since the beginning of time. I’m no miracle-worker!
But, I think I can at least shed some light on an answer.
Like I said earlier, life is complicated. We regularly contend with a wide range of emotions, and that’s only if we’re lucky enough to be able to perceive them and their impact on our lives.
One way of becoming more familiar with our emotions is through mindfulness meditation. I’m sure you’ve heard the word “mindfulness” being thrown around by some hippie or other, but it has been shown to have many benefits.
Mindfulness is essentially a skill that allows you to regulate attention. Simple, right? In a way it is simple — simple, but not easy.
If you’ve ever closed your eyes and tried to focus on your breathing for 2 minutes, you know how difficult this simple task can be.
But, the more you practice this kind of activity, the more accustomed your brain becomes to paying attention, in particular to what’s happening in your mind.
Why is this useful? Because you’d be amazed by how little you understand the workings of your mind. I’ve been meditating daily for the past 20 months or so, and the things I’ve noticed about my mind along the way have been fascinating.
But, what I’ve noticed hasn’t just been interesting in an academic sense. Once you mindfully notice things, you can’t un-notice them. And there have been some things that, once I noticed them, I immediately wanted to change because I saw how and why they were making me unhappy.
Mindfulness makes this kind of growth possible. And this growth often can lead to a happier day-to-day life.
So, remember when I said money can’t buy happiness? Well, it turns out that’s not exactly true.
Research has shown that greater happiness is associated with people who value time more than they value money. And, of course, something that money can buy us is time.
You could spend 30 minutes mowing your lawn or you could pay your neighbour’s kid to do it for you.
You could spend time stressing about what to eat for dinner each day or you could pay to have your meals pre-prepared for you.
You could panic about doing your taxes at the last minute or you could pay to have someone do them for you.
In all of these situations, you could be using your money to free up your time. Using money in this way is associated with greater happiness.
If you enjoy doing any of those things I wouldn’t advise you pay anyone to do them for you. But, if you’d rather be doing something else, it might be worth the cost.
If you don’t know what you’d rather be doing, I’d suggest you figure that out.
The bottom line
If you’re a middle-income earner or above and you’re unhappy now, you’ll probably be unhappy after you win the lottery, too.
To increase your happiness, try meditation or try paying someone to do the work you’d rather not do. Then, take what you’ve learned or the time you’ve freed up and make the best of it.
Building a life worth living isn’t easy, and nothing will ever make it easy.
Money can only do so much for us. We need to do the rest for ourselves.