Does Money Buy You Happiness?

November 16, 2017

My immediate reaction to the question was ‘of course money cannot buy happiness’. This is not just an immediate reflexive response but comes out of experience, and this is why: when working in The Gambia one of my favourite places to work was always in the rural areas. I could feel my body physically unwind as the car started to leave the urban areas and we approached the wide expanses of green pasture occupied by cows and sheep. The people were simple, generous and dignified. They did not have indoor toilets, comfortable foam mattresses, indoor telephone lines or TV sets, but they were content. In comparison an ex-boyfriend of mine in the UK worked for an American millionaire. My boyfriend was his personal broker. So all he did was stare at the way markets were behaving on the computer all day and make purchases like buy shares in an Indian Railway line or a South African mine or an airstrip in Florida. But his millionaire boss was as miserable as they come. He hated black people so he hated me, (Luckily for him he died before he had to bear the indignity of living under a black president) he had 4 daughters and was disappointed in all of them because they were not boys, and he did not think they were capable of running his businesses properly, he was mean to his wife, yet he had everything money could buy. His London home had pictures on the wall that could comfortably pay my foreign tuition fees many times over. He slept in a bullet proof bedroom, and yet he was so unhappy. When I compare the American millionaire to the people in the rural villages of The Gambia, I conclude that indeed money does not buy happiness.


Despite this experience in my mind I did a bit of research to see what others had to say about the subject and came across a few interesting ideas.


49 of the Forbes richest list were polled and it was discovered that they are no happier than the rest of us. Gina Chatsky of money Magazine did a poll of 1500 people and the results indicated overwhelmingly that money did not equate to happiness.


In a couple of YouTube videos Music moguls, Jay Z, Russell Simmons and the former lead man of the rap band RUN DMC, Rev Run are all asked the question ‘Does money buy happiness?’. They all emphatically declare that it does not. With all their wealth they have come to realize that having a lot of money does not correlate to happiness. Jay Z did say that ‘having a lot of money does provide you with more choice’. This is something I will discuss later.

Rev Run stated that happiness for him comes from a place of joy inside himself. Russell Simmons said that for him money is about making a difference in people’s lives, in giving back to people. Happiness researchers state that having purposeful work, religion and family bring about happiness.


This then leads to Michael Norton who argues that money can ‘buy’ happiness if it is spent on other people, and not on just ourselves. He says that having money and spending it on ourselves makes us selfish and unhappy, but when we have money and use it to help other people we become less selfish, more satisfied, and therefore happier. So for him money can buy happiness as long as we are not spending it on ourselves, which ironically, is the main inclination in the drive for money and happiness.


Nat Ware in his TED X presentation talks about how shocked he was during a trip to Africa where he met a one legged taxi driver in Kenya, Sonia, an orphan school girl in Rwanda, and a disabled subsistence farmer in Mozambique. He says he was shocked, not by their poverty, but at ‘their happiness’.   He found their happiness confronting.

He describes happiness as the ultimate social outcome.


Nat states that data proves we are wealthier than ever but less happy, more prosperous but more depressed and less satisfied. Faster trains but complain more, more suicides than homicides, technology increasing exponentially, but don’t see a correlation in our life satisfaction and happiness. He calls this a great paradox.

For him we are unhappy because people and governments are poor predictors of happiness. He suggests that unhappiness is based on 3 things:

  1. Imagination where what we imagine based on books, films, advertising, technology do not match the reality we find ourselves in or purchase or buy into and this makes us unhappy.

  2. The interpersonal gap where we compare ourselves to others and want what they have. I think Mrs Bouquet in ‘Keeping up Appearances’ is a good example or ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’. Here I want to return to the issue of choice I mentioned above. People like Jay Z say money does not buy them happiness but it gives them a choice. In that case would the communities in rural Gambia prefer to have money and thus have a choice? Are they content because they do not have a choice? We see the younger generation leaving the country in droves for the shores of Europe. Is it because they have seen that yes there is a choice and for them they have correlated this choice with money and thus happiness? Are they discontent because they are comparing themselves with others they deem wealthier and therefore happier? In these rural villages, in modern times, one would see a brick house with a TV aerial on top and you would know immediately that they have a child who has made it to Europe and is sending them money. Some even have a car packed in their compound. This then leads to dis-contentment as others then begin to want the same things and the feeling of unity, contentment and sameness begins to fragment.

  3. The Intertemporal gap-this is when our past experiences are better than our present reality-this also leads to unhappiness. Nat links this to parents who raise expectations of their children too high which then lead to disappointment when they do not achieve this in the future. Personally I can relate to this, where I feel I had lost my status, position and business, not having achieved the same level of success in the UK. That did lead to unhappiness for a long period of time. Would having money have solved that problem? But then I raised money and promptly re-invested it - the money itself did not make me any happier. The success it would have provided might have done.

Nat urges us to take happiness seriously. He suggests that often happiness is not taken seriously, it is relegated to art not science to hippies and not business.


Nat goes on to say we are terrible predictors of happiness. This is because the way we rationalise things, the way we make decisions is based on actual levels, absolute levels but the way we feel is based on relative outcomes. Happiness is far more complex, it is far more intertwined with our community our imagination and our past. It is important that we think carefully about the way our mind, feelings and how our expectations work. It is important that we change the way we make decisions so that our thinking process matches our feeling process.


This last statement by Nat then suggests that utilizing System 1 and System 2 methods of thinking as suggested by David Kahneman in conjunction and not in isolation would make for a happier community. For me it also suggests that nudging as developed by Thalman would be a useful tool for people who make decisions about our lives to use.

A young Indian dancer called Saisha Srivastava who teaches dance to blind people also made an interesting point which I want to add to this discourse. She suggests that when we act from a place of authenticity and truth then we create ripples of happiness which then continue outwards and beyond us and allow us to create further ripples of happiness. If we are lucky she says sometimes these ripples return to us bringing us even more joy.


The Prime Minister of Bhutan pioneered the idea of Gross domestic happiness rather than GDP as a way to measure how a country and governments are doing. Maybe this should be adopted but I think it should work in correlation to the GDP as we know that system 1 and 2 working in correlation bring the best results.


Finally having looked in a bit more detail at this topic I would have to revert to my earlier point that I do not believe money buys happiness. Happiness is influenced by our experiences, our communities, the things we value such as work, family and religion, whether we operate from a place of authenticity and our ability to balance our emotional and rational systems of being and thinking, none of which necessarily ‘costs’ anything.


Culled from my discussion for my Executive MBA in the Creative Industries

Ashridge Business School

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