I recently came across a 2014 article that discussed the relationship between money and happiness. Specifically, it related the findings of a study claiming that money has an effect on day-to-day personal happiness/emotional well-being, but only up to a certain income level. Related to cost of living, this upper limit averages around $75,000 for a household. Hawaii has the highest threshold for maximum happiness-by-money ($122,175) while Mississippi comes in lowest ($65,850).
I was immediately interested in thinking about this topic, finding it a surprising and fascinating look at something that can be an “open and shut case” in some forms of conventional Christianity. Now, to be sure, the article does notably confirm a position the Church has long held: that money is not the ultimate guarantor of our contentment. If there is no appreciable difference in emotional well-being between the household of $75,000 and $1,000,000 per year, then clearly money is limited in its ability to make us finally and utterly happy.
And yet: the article’s content also questions an easily repeated claim Christians can make (I’ve made it myself) that money cannot make you happy. If there really is an appreciable difference between subsistence living and $75k per year, then despite some sermonic protestations to the contrary, money must have some meliorative effect upon us. It is indeed true that, of the many factors in our lives that contribute to our happiness, not having to worry every day about housing, food, healthcare, utilities, and other basic matters does bring with it a certain piece of mind. Managed well, at a certain level of money can make these concerns all but disappear. At certain low levels of income, no amount of clever budgeting can make these pressing problems go away.
Most people look, I think, for at least a basic level of financial peace of mind to help in the establishment of happiness. Or, at least, the absence of unhappiness. One difference between persons of faith and the non-religious on this topic may simply be from where they see financial security deriving….and from where, in the end, they perceive their ultimate hope to come. As a Christian, my desire is to consistently take the position that it is God who provides all things–as Jesus reminds his hearers in Matthew 6, flowers, birds, and indeed all things made by God (including us) are cared for by God. And despite the situation in which I might find myself, I hope like Paul I too can learn to be “content whatever the circumstances.”
But still: on behalf of our fellow human beings around the world who suffer and have so little, I feel compelled to assert that money does mean something. If what a person has matters not at all, why are we instructed by God to care for and provide for those in need? The poor, the downtrodden, those who are so much more than unhappy for so many reasons (one of them being their lack of even a subsistence level of funding in a world that runs on money)? It is fine and good in the midst of my middle-class Christianity to claim that money brings no satisfaction while I snack and watch the latest Netflix offering. But it has clearly bought me a level of comfort and relief from the sometimes destitute suffering experienced by those without such means.
True, money does not create happiness on its own. It can, however, help relieve some of the worst of human suffering. Money’s effect on one’s well-being may be limited, but it still has an effect. We should well remember, then, that with what a person is blessed–whether directly from the hand of God or mediated through the hands of God’s servant people can and does help.
Well, at least until you get to $75,000. Because there is more to life than money. And on that, it seems, but Church and world agree.