Can Having More Money Lead to Greater Unhappiness?

We’ve all heard the adage that “money can’t buy happiness,” and yet, within our culture, it seems that we are constantly being told that it can. Whether we receive these messages from advertisers, movie stars, pop divas, it is undeniable that these messages abound. Indeed, we are swimming in them.
The messages that we receive try to sell the idea that having more wealth (e.g., in the form of a Lexus, a bigger house, diamond earrings, a Coach handbag, designer clothing) is ” better.” However, research has clearly shown that, beyond the poverty level, having more money has a minimal impact on our well-being (reviews of which can be found in  Dr. Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness). One reason that money cannot buy happiness is related to the idea of hedonic adaptation. That is, we adjust to the new car, house, handbag, iPhone, etc., and our happiness level returns to its baseline level.
We are made to be adaptive, which is a good thing. Novelty does usually give us a rush or at least get our attention (much like we begin to ignore a ticking clock at night but a hissing sound would catch our attention). In this way, buying new things can give some momentary pleasure, but the novelty quickly wears off due to this hedonic adaptation. Think of all those Christmases as a kid in which you were jazzed for weeks before you opened your presents (hard to adapt to that which you do not know) and compare that to how you felt an hour after opening those presents (or a day, a week). That’s the hedonic adaptation kicking in! But overall, this adaptation is extremely beneficial because we’d never be here today if we were not adaptive as a species.
Now, I ran recently ran across this article by Jonah Lehrer, one of my favorite science writers, that adds another twist – how having more money can sometimes result in less happiness. To summarize, having more money allows us to enjoy some of the finer things in life – exotic places, foods, wines, etc. Well, the truth is that our lives, even if we are fairly affluent, mainly consist of more mundane places, activities, and things. We we are stuck in traffic on the way to work, grab a sandwich at Subway, sit at a desk at work, have spaghetti for dinner, read a magazine on our couch at home, and so on. Here’s the ironic part – having money allows us to gain access to the “finer things” in life and even the thought that we could be accessing these finer things (but are not because much of life is more mundane) causes us to devalue these more mundane things. Thus, our neighborhood isn’t as beautiful as Bora Bora, our Subway sandwich isn’t near as tasty as the food at the most exquisite French restaurants in Paris, etc.
Learning to savor what we have…to be fully present with the sights, sounds, textures, and tastes around us provides a deep sense of contentment and joy in our lives. But we can’t do this if we keep thinking about the grass being greener on the other side of the hill. We need to learn to appreciate the grass upon which we are standing.

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