The rich life...
March 1, 2005 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Is it really that hard to be happy and rich?

All of my life I've always heard "rich people are often miserable", "it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God", and on and on. I'll probably never find out, but I only half believe these, and think I could easily be the exception to such statements. I'm not saying I think money would make me happy (I do buy "you can't take it with you"), but I tend to think I could be happy and rich at the same time. I know it depends on the person and how he/she defines happiness, but are these just sayings people spout without really thinking about to make the poor feel better/keep the peace, or are they true more often than naught?
or, um, give me $100,000, and I'll tell you the answer.
posted by hellbient to Work & Money (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I will say that it's easier to be happy when you don't have to worry about paying next month's rent.
posted by kindall at 4:13 PM on March 1, 2005

The idea that rich people aren't happy is a myth spread by the upper class to keep poor people in their place. Or that's what my dad always told me.

But seriously, everybody has their ups and downs no matter how much money they have. Your mood hinges more on your personality than on your paycheck.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 4:16 PM on March 1, 2005

I've met poor people who were cheerful beyond belief and rich people who were unremittingly miserable. I think mental state has as much to do with a person's basic personality as it does with circumstances.
posted by jonmc at 4:19 PM on March 1, 2005

I have a lot of money, and while it's not the source of my happiness, it makes it a lot easier to reach a lot of my goals.

The fact that the goals are good ones and I have my head on straight is as important as any of the rest of it, I think.

Anyone who tells you money makes for unhappiness, though, is blowing smoke.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:33 PM on March 1, 2005

Depends on if you're happy now, and if your money changes it. I think it also depends on how you come by it.
posted by SpecialK at 4:36 PM on March 1, 2005

Of course you can be rich and happy at the same time! Just as you can be poor and miserable. The state of happiness (or anything else, for that matter) is created by an individual; it's all in how one chooses.

I feel like I should tack on a "young grasshopper" at the end there.
posted by Specklet at 4:39 PM on March 1, 2005

I think these sayings probably came from people who thought money would bring them happiness, but then realized once they attained wealth they were as unhappy as ever. I think a more accurate statement would be (as you said in the question, sort of) "Money doesn't make you happy" rather than "You can't be happy with money." I think the latter statement is obviously untrue.

There's also the saying that "With money, comes problems" (or in Puff Daddy's words, "Mo' Money Mo' Problems"). This could also contribute to the conception above.
posted by rooftop secrets at 4:43 PM on March 1, 2005

Wealth may not bring automatic happiness, but there certainly is a whole lot of potential for sadness in poverty.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:44 PM on March 1, 2005

Best answer: In Dante's Inferno, the greedy and the wasteful are both condemned to an eternity of useless labor after death. In the modern world, that's what they get in life, too. The only way to become rich, if you're not born that way, is to work really, really, really hard, generally doing something you wouldn't do if it weren't for the money. Also, the sort of demanding careers that provide high compensation tend to take a really significant toll on personal relationships, hobbies, and your personal life.

Anyway, that's the argument, I think. You might also be interested in this, and in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (one of his arguments, if memory serves, which it might not, is that while having enough money to avoid abject poverty is critical for happiness, additional money only increases long-term happiness a small amount, and that no amount of additional money will increase happiness enough to make up for the unhappiness generated by working more than, say, 65 to 70 hours a week).
posted by gd779 at 4:50 PM on March 1, 2005 [2 favorites]

I tend to think that you have a fixed amount of anxiety and unhappiness and you'll direct it at whatever thing is not currently working out. Certainly not being forced to pay attention to which week you're paying the rent is a nice thing, but the attention you gave to that concern gets easily hi-jacked by other things.

So, I tend to agree with everyone who says that money doesn't make everything perfect but it doesn't really hurt, either. The one state of bank account that does, I've found, have a real impact on your mental well-being is being completely broke. In my own life, being completely broke has led to my worst decision-making and the closest I've ever been to depression. For an object lesson on this, see the recent MeTa thread concerning u.n ~~--~ZJ [NO CARRIER]
posted by MarkAnd at 4:57 PM on March 1, 2005

It may depend on how you acquire it - whether it's sudden or gradual, due to luck or your own efforts. Inheritance? Years of hard work? The lottery? A lawsuit? One brilliant invention?

The story of the average working person who becomes unhappy after winning the lottery because of misunderstandings with old friends, etc., is pretty common. As is the one about the rich children who had everything... except a loving relationship with their parents.

Unfortunately I have no statistics to offer, only, um, archetypes.
posted by expialidocious at 5:05 PM on March 1, 2005

I think it's safe to say that the poor friends' wishing for / needing things they can't afford is what makes them unhappy.

You raised what I think is a good point, luriete. I think being content with what you have is one key to happiness. Not that you shouldn't work hard to acheive your goals, and not that it's wrong to want nice things, but when you let wanting things make you unhappy... that's just silly. I know people like that, and they're awful to be around. Really, if you're never content, when will enough be enough? If you're not content, that's when 10 million dollars won't make you happy, because you'll think, grr, why don't I have 20 million dollars?! I don't have piles of money, or enough crap to do a "Fabulous Life" VH1 special on, but I am blessed with a lot, so I try to be content.

I also ditto what people say about being broke- that really and truly does suck.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:06 PM on March 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

The love of money is the root of all evil. Not, of course, money itself.

Not normally a bible-quoter, me, but there is wisdom, and much of the answer to your question, in that short sentence.

I wish I had more of it, because I could do more of the things that make me happy -- travel, write, cogitate under the trees -- if I did. But I hate the stuff itself, and what a fascination with it does to the lives of people who fall under its spell.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:22 PM on March 1, 2005

Idle hands do the Devil's work. If you are rich because daddy dropped a few million into your trust fund and you have decided not to work, happiness may not come easily. If you are rich because you are working to earn it, you may be happy, but you may also be giving up everything to get it, such as family and friends, which ultimately will leave you unfulfilled. If you are lucky enough to be rich while working moderately hard, leaving enough time for life, you might be happy. Sometimes I think it is easier to be happy with less, as long as the basic needs are met, because you do not have to spend so much of your energy striving for material goods.
posted by caddis at 6:28 PM on March 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

gd779's link above makes an interesting point. If you have extra money, spend it on quality of life rather than things. Exotic travel, better food, frequent dental & medical checkups, daily long distance calls to family & friends, taking cabs, flying business class, taking courses, circumventing hassles. Hell, even a personal trainer and an in-home gym followed by a dip in your Jacuzzi. Or as that link says:

"if we use an increase in our incomes to buy more of certain inconspicuous goods–such as freedom from a long commute or a stressful job–then the evidence paints a very different picture. The less we spend on conspicuous consumption goods, the better we can afford to alleviate congestion; and the more time we can devote to family and friends, to exercise, sleep, travel, and other restorative activities. On the best available evidence, reallocating our time and money in these and similar ways would result in healthier, longer– and happier–lives."
posted by mono blanco at 6:46 PM on March 1, 2005

I take issue with this whole idea of enjoying wealth more if you earn it.

I am a child of the middle-class, recent college grad, and broke for now but with decent prospects. When I work, I work hard and take pride in doing a good job, but if I was offered a lot of money without work, I wouldn't feel bad about it at all. I would buy a lot of camera equipment, I would buy a sailboat, and I would invest the remainder so that I could afford to live on my sailboat and enjoy leisure for the remainder of my life.
posted by crazy finger at 7:28 PM on March 1, 2005

cf, that reminds me of a quote....

"Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you a boat big enough to pull up right next to it!"

Of course, that little bit of wisdom comes from noted manic philosopher David Lee Roth.

So be kind of selective where you park that boat of yours.
posted by dglynn at 8:00 PM on March 1, 2005

During the go-go dot-com days, I made a bunch of money, then poured it back in to a venture capital fund that I helped run; it may, one day, turn back from paper money into real money, or it may not.

These days, I run an indie film production company. And trust me, it will a loooong time until I retire to the Bahamas doing this. Still, I'm wildly thrilled to be making movies, and think frequently of the old line 'I just want the chance to prove that money can't buy me happiness.' I actually had that chance, and now I know, at least for me, it can't.

Granted, I would be thrilled to have some zeroes added to my bank account; it would definitely make parts of my life vastly easier. But, in my own life, I've found happiness is driven much more by what I'm doing each day, and how excited I am to be doing it, then by net worth.

A quick further thought: I have a number of friends who work in the legal and finance worlds, who make exorbitant sums of money, and are, in fact, wildly unhappy because they hate what they do. Most claim they'd love to get out, but can't imagine living on less. So, if there's any truth to money making people unhappy, perhaps it comes in the form of the proverbial golden handcuffs. Money, or the need to keep making it, 'obligates' people to stick with a life they'd rather not.
posted by thomascrown at 9:19 PM on March 1, 2005

Rich people can optimise their happiness by spending money on improving the quality of their life and increasing their free time, rather than squandering it on status symbols.
posted by fire&wings at 4:53 AM on March 2, 2005

gd779: interesting article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Prospero at 6:12 AM on March 2, 2005

If you have money, you can spend your time doing the things that make you happy, instead of working.

If you love your work, you can spend your time happily working, even if you don't have much money.

If you love money itself, you can spend your time working, and make a lot of money, but you may very well never be happy.
posted by nicwolff at 5:09 PM on March 2, 2005

I saw a talk by the brilliant economist Robert Frank in which he made some interesting points on this subject (I might mottle some of these arguments, but this is the gist of it). Surveys show that social groups rate their happiness based on their social standing relative to the next 'higher' social class. People look to achieve what the other people around them are achieving... avowed happiness often comes down to keeping up with the Joneses. The middle class doesn't aspire to Oprah's standing; they aspire to people in their social sphere that are just a little higher up than they are, so they set goals like purchasing a new DVD player, taking an occasional vacation, or having and supporting another child... things that are eminently within reach. Happiness depends on the perception of upward mobility. But wealth in America tends to be exponential, so if you're fabulously wealthy, the people above you who you socialize with are far, far out of your reach. You feel like a failure, because there's no room for improvement, and you feel like there's no way you can climb to the next tier. Frank went on to argue that a healthy society would tax the hell out of the insanely rich; there would only be an increase in happiness.

If you're not comfortable talking about happiness as being dependent on money, substitute 'things you value' or 'utility' for 'money'. Most people spend time around others who value the same type of thing (intelligence, say), and it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that much of happiness depends on your perceived ability to pull yourself up to the level of people you admire.

Also, Frank argued that the French are typically happier than Americans because they tend to spend their money on a lot of small little things (baguettes! flowers!) that improve their lives. Americans tend to save for big purchases (flat screen TVs!) to climb upward, and that makes them rarely feel like they're climbing in happiness or achieving their goals.
posted by painquale at 5:31 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Oh jeez, only now do I see that gd779 linked to a Robert Frank article. Now all the mistakes I made will be apparent. Hopefully I said at least one thing that isn't in that article.
posted by painquale at 5:33 PM on March 2, 2005

I think that there is probably a baseline amount of money you need to have to avoid having a lack of money actively make you unhappy. Beyond that, it doesn't seem like there's a very linear correlation with increasing money and increasing happiness. I read an article a while ago (can't remember where, sorry) that described a study that concluded that people with higher incomes were exactly as happy as people with lower incomes, until you reached a certain basement threshold, below which everyone, to a man, was dreadfully unhappy. The other interesting thing that it determined was that almost everyone, regardless of income or assets, thought that they would be a lot happier if they only made 20% more than they did at the time of the study. I guess everybody's always wishing for a little more, huh?

On the other hand, I can't imagine anything that would make you UNhappy about being rich. I would guess that maybe people are surprised that money doesn't make you a whole lot happier than you were before, so maybe that disappointment translates to unhappiness.

Alternatively, maybe people are unhappy when they don't have anything practical to bitch about.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 5:40 PM on March 2, 2005

I heard a radio show once citing a study that said million dollar lottery winners inevitably eventually go back to their grumpy, unhappy, depressed former-selves. I tend to believe it. Money doesn't solve all problems, but most people think it does.

People tend to fixate on something they think is a cure-all. I remember a book written by a bodybuilder whose weightlifting was a sort of addiction. He was always thinking that, when his biceps got to be a certain measurement, he'd be a success and the world would suddenly be completely rosy. It took him a long time to realize that he would always still have problems, worries, considerations about his emotional well-being and self-esteem, etc., and happiness didn't = bodily perfection any more than happiness = $1,000,000.
posted by Shane at 6:25 AM on March 3, 2005

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