October 1, 2023

The adage “money doesn’t buy happiness” is often used to point out the discontentment of rich folks, and/or to prove that the less financially secure can still find bliss despite the size of their bank accounts—and sure, both those things are true. One cannot log on to Amazon and order a box of happiness, and no amount of cash will ever fill the emotional hole of, say, heartbreak. But whether or not we can agree money is the root of all evil, it can absolutely help afford someone the freedom and time it takes to cultivate and maintain a higher level of happiness.
Happiness is, by definition, an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment and fulfillment—ultimately, its aims look different for each person. Although happiness isn’t a necessity for daily human survival, it certainly helps life feel more fulfilling. That’s probably why its pursuit is actually one of only three written down inalienable rights that we’re endowed by a creator and that the government is obligated to protect. 
Money’s effect on happiness is less about value found in material things, says Sarah Levey of Austin, Texas, who founded Y7 yoga studios. Designer clothes, big houses and exotic vacations are all nice things to enjoy. However, for Levey and many others, money’s value is found in the luxury it affords you to take chances and to focus on the things that fulfill you. “You can go freelance or to start your own company or to do these things that really bring joy,” she says. “That’s the difference.” 
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, established by 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow, outlines an ascending list of foundational things humans require to reach their potential and thrive—physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. According to Maslow, base needs, including food, water, shelter and sleep, must be consistently met in order to address complex needs in the hierarchy such as mental health or finding a sense of purpose. 
In the U.S., the cost of many physiological needs are high and getting higher, with rising prices of food, clothing and shelter now exacerbated by inflation. “If a person is unable to provide these everyday necessities, how can we expect them to be truly happy when every day likely feels like a struggle?” questioned Monalisa Bryant, a licensed professional counselor in Houston.
Marura Cosgrove, a special education teacher in Austin, struggled to make ends meet while she taught physical education and coached volleyball, track and basketball at both the middle and high school levels for a decade. During this time, she was also a club volleyball coach year-round and even took on house sitting and other odd jobs to supplement her income. 
“One of the main reasons I stopped teaching and coaching was because I just kept getting myself more and more in debt,” Cosgrove shared. “I was also borderline exhausted. I would start work at 6 a.m., sometimes finish at midnight, and repeat.” 
On weekends, Cosgrove would travel for tournaments, meaning that often the only time she was able to spend with family and friends was when they came to her teams’ games. “I tried my best to keep up and do things with my friends, family, etc., but any type of trip or wedding would just put me significantly more behind,” she said. “There’d be moments that I was driving a non-air-conditioned car just because I didn’t really have another option.” She loved her job but the financial burden wore on her happiness so much that she couldn’t afford to keep doing it. 
A 2010 Princeton study correlating financial security and happiness found that someone’s joy plateaus at an annual income of $75,000 (or a little less than $99,000 today), meaning any figure above that has no real effect on wellbeing. This number, the study suggested, is what someone needs to fulfill their basic needs and anything beyond that is just “keeping score.” This is, maybe unsurprisingly, nonsense according to a 2021 study authored by Matt Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Wharton School for Business. Published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” the updated study found that well-being often rises in line with income. 
Drawing from examples offered by more than 33,000 U.S. adults through an app called “Track Your Happiness,” the study’s authors found “no evidence of an income threshold at which experienced and evaluative wellbeing diverged.” In layman’s terms, suggests the authors, this means higher incomes are associated with both feeling better each day and being more satisfied with life overall. 
“Typically, you see a lot of individuals unhappy in a lot of areas of their lives. They settle for what is available or what they can get,” says Bryant, who specifically worked with lower-income individuals before she started a private practice. “It’s almost as if their growth is stunted to the point where they’re unable to get to those next levels of happiness.”
Oftentimes this can lead people to depression or anxiety and put a strain on relationships with those around them. “Because they feel stuck in life, it’s a lot harder to obtain or reach their goals,” Bryant says. “With anxiety, it may start off with a person worrying about one small bill, and then they’re borrowing money to pay little bills but those little bills add up. Before you know it, they’re unable to pay many of their bills, which leads to excessive worrying.”
For some, the anxiety can linger even after reaching a better place financially. “It’s almost as if an individual experienced a trauma. Even if it’s not excessive, if they lose the ability to take care of their normal day-to-day, then there could be a fear that it will happen again,” Bryant says. 
STOCK IMAGE Happy young woman saving money in a piggybank
Social media marketer Toriq Ahmed used to spend any excess cash he had on high-end sneakers and clothing. Since being laid off by a sneaker startup in January, the Dallas resident says his work as a freelancer with different agencies and events around Texas has changed his relationship with money.
“Now, I’m more conscious of what I spend my money on,” Ahmed says, especially highlighting experiences he believes will help his career in the long run. Creating a more organized budget and deliberately investing earned money back into himself has brought Ahmed more happiness than simply splurging on material goods when he had a consistent paycheck, he says. 
“There doesn’t seem to be any point where conflating personal success with your financial outcome is a good thing,” conceded Killingsworth to Vice last year. “Having more money is good, being fixated on it and using it to define your self-worth is probably not such a great idea.”
However, if you’re already in a place where you’re happy with who you are as a person, having money, access and the freedom to spend it on things that are important to you, does bring happiness, Levey says. And, if part of that joy is attributed to splurging on a last-minute tropical vacation or having the option to buy yourself an expensive bag, having the means helps a lot.
Levey and her husband left New York City early in the pandemic while she was pregnant with her son, to stay with her parents in Michigan. They’ve since moved to Austin. While the cost of living there is skyrocketing, she says you simply get more for your dollar than when living in Manhattan: “While I’d absolutely move back to New York in a heartbeat, for me it never felt like I had enough money where I could prioritize the things that are a priority.” 
Levey points to pressures brought on by her obligation to take care of parents as the oldest child in her family, and deciding how much to spend on her son’s extracurricular activities with a second child on the way. It’s the choosing that impacts her mental health, she says. “It becomes a constant state of worry—a constant state of prioritizing people and experiences over others.” 
Cosgrove spoke to how this compromise impacted relationships with her family, whether it was due to not being able to spend quality time with her nieces or having to tell close friends that, not only could she not be in their wedding, she couldn’t even afford to attend it.
Seven years ago Cosgrove left teaching for a sales job at Indeed. “Within two years, I paid off $70,000 in debt from loans, credit cards, everything,” she says. “I bought my own home. I’ve saved tons of money. I have time to do volunteer work with volleyball and all that good stuff.” 
One of the biggest game changers for Cosgrove has been the time she’s afforded to take care of herself. “I have time to see a therapist and talk about anxiety and depression,” she says. While she was insured as a teacher, she felt as though she couldn’t create room in her schedule, or muster the energy, to pursue self-care through therapy and acupuncture. 
Because Cosgrove has been able to find herself in a place of financial security, she can afford to take additional measures for the things she cares about most—building a family with her fiance. “We’ve run into difficulties trying to have a family naturally,” she shared. “That causes stress and confusion, and luckily, because of finances, we’re able to take care of the doctors that we have to see and do the procedures that we need to do… If I was a teacher, we wouldn’t be able to have children.” She recognizes it’s a luxury to be in this position, even if it shouldn’t be.  
None of this is to say that everyone who lacks money is automatically resigned to being unhappy. People with less money for one circumstance or another can still find daily joy in their families, value in their work and hobbies and still appreciate indulging in things they can’t always afford. Another old financial adage, however, does ring true—time is money. It’s also finite and when you’re working to live, that time doing things you love with people you love is often the first thing sacrificed just to get by. Meanwhile, people with the means can spend that money and time prioritizing happiness. They can eat healthier, sleep better, breathe comfortably and with less stress, find fulfilling work, take breaks and vacations, afford paid help for their children, get some sun and smell the flowers, and focus on their physical and mental health.
So, sure. Money doesn’t buy happiness in one transaction, but it definitely affords it.
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