So many of us strive so hard for material success that you might think there was a clear relationship between wealth and happiness. The media and our governments encourage us to believe this since they need us to keep earning and spending to boost economic growth. From school onwards, we’re taught that long-term well-being stems from achievement and economic prosperity—from ‘getting on’ or ‘making it’, accumulating more and more wealth, achievement, and success.
Consequently, it comes as a shock for many people to learn that there is no straightforward relationship between wealth and well-being. Once our basic material needs are satisfied (i.e. once we’re assured of regular food, adequate shelter, and a basic degree of financial security), wealth only has a negligible effect on well-being. For example, studies have shown that, in general, lottery winners do not become significantly happier than they were before, and that even extremely rich people—such as billionaires—are not significantly happier than people with regular salaries. Studies have shown that American and British people are less contented now than they were fifty years ago, although their material wealth is much higher. On an international level, there does appear to be some correlation between wealth and well-being, partly because there are many countries in the world where people’s basic material needs are not satisfied. But this correlation is not straightforward since wealthier countries tend to be more politically stable, more peaceful and democratic, with less oppression and more freedom—all of which are themselves important factors in well-being.
So why do put so much effort into acquiring wealth and material goods? You could compare it to a man who keeps knocking at a door, even though he’s been told that the person he’s looking for isn’t home. “But he must be in there!” he shouts and barges in to explore the house. He storms out again but returns to the house a couple of minutes later to knock again. Seeking well-being through material success is just as irrational.
Well-Being through Giving
If anything, it appears that there is a relationship between non-materialism and well-being. While possessing wealth and material goods doesn’t lead to happiness, giving them away actually does. Generosity is strongly associated with well-being. For example, studies of people who practice volunteering have shown that they have better psychological and mental health and increased longevity. The benefits of volunteering have been found to be greater than taking up exercise, or attending religious services—in fact, even greater than giving up smoking. Another study found that, when people were given a sum of money, they gained more well-being if they spent it on other people, or gave it away, rather than spending it on themselves. This sense of well-being is more than just feeling good about ourselves—it comes from a powerful sense of connection to others, an empathic and compassionate transcendence of separateness, and of our own self-centeredness.
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In fact, paradoxically, another study has shown that this is one way in which money actually can bring happiness: if you give away the money you earn. This research—by Dunn, Gilbert and Wilson—also showed that money is more likely to bring happiness is you spend it on experiences, rather than material goods.1 Another study (by Joseph Chancellor and Sonja Lyubomirsky) has suggested that consciously living a lifestyle of ‘strategic underconsumption’ (or thrift) can also lead to well-being.2
So if you really want to enhance your well-being—and as long as your basic material needs are satisfied—don’t try to accumulate money in your bank account, and don’t treat yourself to material goods you don’t really need. Be more generous and altruistic—increase the amount of money you give to people in need, give more of your time to volunteering, or spend more time helping other people, or behaving more kindly to everyone around you. Ignore the ‘happiness means consumption’ messages we’re bombarded with by the media. A lifestyle of generosity and under-consumption may not suit the needs of economists and politicians—but it will certainly make us happier.
We would do well to heed the words of the American Indian, Ohiyesa, speaking of his Sioux people:
It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. Its appeal is to the material part, and if allowed its way, it will in time disturb one’s spiritual balance. Therefore, children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving.
This article was originally published on Steve Taylor’s blog at Psychology Today.