Eilidh Glassey looks at the surprising link between wealth and happiness.

When Googling the word ‘happiness’, Wikipedia gives the definition: ‘Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy’. How to achieve happiness, however, is something that cannot be generally defined and is disputed by many. Nonetheless, the common belief is that love, success, money and power are all key contributors to a ‘good life’ and therefore happiness.

I must admit now, before continuing with this article, that I am a believer that more money would make me happier. I dream of winning the lottery so that I could have an endless supply of money to spend frivolously on luxury holidays, an upmarket flat on Hope Street and a new overflowing wardrobe.  I was, however, very disappointed when research showed that, in general, the happiness of those who receive a large influx of cash actually deteriorates. I don’t want to believe that this is true, but apparently the money runs out quicker than imagined and the upkeep of the newly accustomed lifestyle causes a rapid increase in debt. People often become selfish and anti-social and as a result, relationships and friendships weaken – all spiralling down into one big pit of depression. I still like to think I would do it differently and that I would be one of the exceptions, but allegedly everyone feels that way and it never really works out.

What about small amounts of money? A psychological study was undertaken in a Canadian university where undergrads were given an envelope of cash ranging from $10-30. Half of the students were told to spend the money on themselves and the other half told to buy something for someone else. Each student was asked to rate his or her happiness on scale from one to ten before receiving the money and at the end of the day. It was found that the happiness of those who bought jewellery, make-up or coffee for themselves was the same in both instances. I guess it’s like opening a bag you haven’t used in a while and finding a £10 note crumpled inside which you didn’t know you had. You are in a state of euphoria for a short amount of time but this quickly wears off. Conversely, the happiness of those who spent the money on others increased on average but there was no relationship between the amount of money spent and the increase in happiness. The same experiment was undertaken in a non-affluent area in Uganda and the same results were found. Across the world, those who spend money on others tend to be happier.

The human brain is a very complex organ. In the past two million years it has almost tripled in size and during this time new structures have developed, one of these being the frontal lobe. This contains the pre-frontal cortex, which enables us to visualize an event before it actually happens, to a better extent than any other species. This is what causes us to strive for success, power and money. We can envision our lives with or without a high paying job and decide which one would make us happier, achieving these goals creates what is called Natural Happiness. This is often wrongly thought to be superior to the happiness we experience if we don’t achieve our goals, Synthetic Happiness: what we make of what we have. The reason being, our ‘experience simulator’ suffers from impact bias: it exaggerates the intensity and long-lasting impact of certain events on our happiness. We also have the ability to subconsciously change our views to feel better about ourselves even if we haven’t achieved our goals. Recent studies show that even major life traumas or enhancements have no effect on happiness after three months in almost all cases. This means that whether or not we receive a promotion, pass an exam or win the lottery, our long-term happiness will not be affected as in actual fact, synthesized happiness is just as powerful as natural happiness.

Another study was undertaken to further demonstrate this. Participants with anterograde amnesia, who were unable to recollect any recent events but were able to remember childhood, were shown six Monet prints and asked to rank them from 1-6 in order of preference. They were then told that only numbers 3 and 4 were available, and that they could take either print home. Rationally, each consumer took home print number 3. Participants returned three days later, when they had no memory of the experiment or the prints, and were asked to rank them again. On average print number 3 was then ranked second favourite and print number 4 fell down to fifth favourite.  These participants had synthesized their happiness and changed their aesthetic reactions to the picture that they had taken home, even though they were not aware they owned it at the time of questioning. The participants thus displayed the ability to subconsciously change their personal views and beliefs in order to make themselves happier.

So all I’ve managed to find out is that winning the lottery will make me depressed, that I should give all my money away to others and that it makes no difference whether I am rich and succeed in life or not because I will be just as happy either way. To be honest, this still makes no logical sense to me, so is unlikely to change my materialistic habits or my want for success. Although it is comforting to think the same level of happiness is achievable even if I am not rich and successful as planned. I did, however, find a few articles with some tips on how to maximize your happiness if you are ever lucky, or unlucky, enough to come into some money: help others instead of yourself, spend money on experiences rather than physical goods, invest in a passion, invest in your own well-being (including fitness) and try to buy many small pleasures rather than fewer big ones. Anybody who is realizing now that I haven’t touched on the classic ‘but money won’t buy you love’ issue, even Paul McCartney confessed, from his experiences, that the Beatles song he wrote with John Lennon “Can’t Buy Me Love” should have actually been named “Can Buy Me Love” — and you can’t argue with the Beatles.


Eilidh Glassey


Image by Edd Sowden