Come On, Get Happy

MoneyI 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.

2014_HappinessAnnualIncomeMAP2

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 meanhappiness 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.

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3 comments on “Come On, Get Happy

  1. wcosnett says:

    I’ve heard of this, but it was back in 2007 or so, so it may have been an earlier study. As you said, the basic idea is that if you are someone living in a cardboard box and then get to a point where you can afford an apartment, you are significantly happier. If you make $150000 a year and get a raise so you are now making $170,000, your happiness increase is relatively small.

    As you pointed out, this reinforces the Christian message that adding to your material wealth is not an efficient way to increase your level of contentedness. At the same time it shows that we should be careful that this isn’t universalized to include the poor and needy that we are commanded to help.

    I think the main distinction is whether someone is seeking wealth as a means to an end, or an end itself. The main ends being, as you describe, food, shelter, security, health, education, for yourself and your loved ones. After a certain point, maybe $75,000, you have enough for that and wealth becomes an end in and of itself. You have a house, but you could have a bigger one. You have more money than you could ever need, but if you do a few more things you could have a higher score. This is where diminishing returns set in. To put it another way, I do think that money itself means nothing, but what money can provide means something. Once you get to the point where money isn’t providing or allowing you access to anything meaningful or necessary it ceases to have substantive meaning in the way that Christians mean it. The question has always been, “How much is too much?” For me the most fascinating thing about the study was that it quantifies this point at around $75,000.

    It’s that first situation that we as Christians are called to help others, and in fact once our own needs are met we are called to give up any extra we have in order to help our fellow brothers and sisters. If we have two cloaks, give one to someone who has none.

  2. cax513 says:

    3rd paragraph should say “peace of mind”, 6th paragraph should say “help relieve some” Last paragraph should say “the church and”.

    Ha ha, I hope you don’t mind my editorial input. It’s a great post!

    >

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