Tag Archives: Can Money Buy Happiness?

This is an interesting message shared on the Friends of Positive Psychology listserv, and republished with the author’s (Dr. Joel F. Wade) kind permission. The conversation started around an artifle of Scientific American asking “Can Money Buy Happiness?”.

I think one reason why we are looking at how we spend our time is that most of us in the US and much of the west are wealthy enough that we can think about different kinds of wealth.

My dad spent a lot of his time working to earn a living. It was necessary, and it was his choice, and as soon as he could, he cut back on his hours and spent more time with us and with leisure activities. I have grown up in a wealthier time, because we have grown more prosperous in America, and I have been able to think about having time and experiences with my wife and kids as a form of wealth that I value very much, so I have spent fewer hours working than did my dad, and more time with my family.

This is possible, in part, because we create more wealth per person per hour than we did when my dad was my age. What we consider poverty today in the US would have been middle class or better a couple of generations ago. So we in effect generally have more potential time available to us, if we choose to use it. But we also have higher expectations, and have become accustomed to nicer things and more conveniences. If we want those nicer things and conveniences, then we have to spend the time to earn more money to afford them, and the hedonic treadmill rolls on.

But nobody is forcing anyone to buy new cars, or plasma screen high definition TVs, or nice new granite countertops, or to travel around regularly. I could live in a house like the nice middle classish one in which I grew up – including the appliances, furnishings, etc. that it included – for much less than the one that I live in now, even though where I live is comparable by today’s standards with the quality of my childhood home by the standards of that time. My house now would seem like a miraculous and strangely beautiful place in comparison – computers and microwave ovens in themselves would have been the stuff of science fiction.

I had a friend years ago who made a very good living as a consultant. But he didn’t really work very many hours. He lived in a very cheap apartment, spent a lot of time at workshops learning, or with friends playing, travelling, or doing other such things. He had very few possessions and had created this lifestyle by choice, according to what mattered most to him. He could have made enough money to afford a very luxurious lifestyle, but that just didn’t matter to him. His wealth was his freedom, his ability to spend his time as he wished.

Another friend had been a very wealthy doctor, but when his wife passed away, he sold nearly everything he had and spent all of his time travelling. He told me that he realized that he was spending all of his time and money taking care of all of his expensive possessions for somebody else – whoever would get them when he passed away. He decided to use his wealth differently, according to what he most loved to do.

But another person might really love a beautiful house, a fast paced lifestyle with lots of things that they have to do, but also a lot of conveniences – as this fellow had when he was younger.

The beauty is that we have a lot to say about how we use our time, we just have to be willing to step back and consider what really matters to us personally. And this is true for a lot of people, not just those who are wealthy.

Of course, things are not good economically right now, and there are lots of people in the US dealing with very hard times, I am not being pollyanish about this. But things are still objectively better on many levels than they ever have been, and this is the result of millions of people spending their time earning money, and creating value for other people, raising the standard of living for all of us while pursuing their own self-interest.

It matters how a culture is organized. A freer country that values exchange very highly will encourage people to think more in terms of productivity, where their time is money. Something is lost with this, but something is also gained – a kind of creative/productive valuation of time – and that something allows and encourages people to create more wealth, to deal with problems more effectively and efficiently, and perhaps to come to the point eventually where they can consider from a more abundant circumstance that they would like to spend their time differently.

That is a direction, it is not perfection. I just think that it’s worth remembering the upside to spending time and making money.

All my best,


Joel F. Wade, Ph.D.