Buying Happiness


A lot of folks believe that money doesn’t buy happiness. I don’t think I outright disagree, but I can’t help rolling my eyes. Part of this is my maniacal (and often hypocritical) hatred for cliche, but a bigger factor is simply the fact I’ve been both upper and lower class and, as such, I know first hand what money bought.

  Money bought respect from passersby who saw me as smarter, more upright and more attractive in direct proportion to how much money I was wearing. It bought the cheap, $200 dollar suit, $40 leather shoes, $10 tie and $20 dollar hair cut I absolutely needed to have if I wanted to get hired in a respectable company.  Money bought the civilized means with which to erase smug smiles, the socially acceptable means with which to tell my wealthy coworker he was full of shit. It bought approval from boss when I dressed sharply, which turned out to be especially vital when I learned that boss was considering firing me for an insufficiently refined taste (budget) in gentleman’s attire. Money makes the doorman’s smile genuine and the waitress flirtatious – a little smile over the shoulder, the invitation to come over for drinks a little later.  To be poor and respected – the only way I’ve ever combined the two involved an awful lot of thuggery.
  My body is made from money. Money buys fresh vegetables instead of bulk Top Ramen and frozen peas, which is another way of saying it pays for my normal, unmedicated blood pressure now and didn’t pay for my near hyper-tension as a 19 year old. It buys my trips to the gym for basketball and my medical care when I break a foot or sprain a wrist. It makes my extra set of workout clothes a non-issue and renders the cost of laundry a triviality. It buys the athletic brace on my knee and the ergonomic shoes protecting my surgically repaired joints when I play sports. Money makes it so I’ll still be able to walk when I’m 70.
  Money relieves stress, which lowers the levels of cortisol in my bloodstream, which is to say it adds decades to my life expectancy and saves me from hopelessness like drowning. Money freed me from my second and third jobs and pays for my hiking trips into the woods for restorative, fresh air. It pays for my chances to commune with nature.  Money saves me from looking like some awful hybrid of Joe Dirt and the Blob.
  It buys the presumption of innocence from police officers and, failing that, it buys lawyers. Lawyers make you innocent, just ask the Storey County Sherriff’s Office. It buys me contact lenses with up to date prescriptions, which is good because old contacts give me red eyes and red eyes make me look stoned. Money buys me car insurance or, when I’m in Korea, it buys housing in the pricey sorts of communities that have functional public transportation. This is to say, without money, I have no legal means to get to work. I will never forget five years of planning my commute around escape routes and avoiding the police.
  Money bought me real estate far enough away from the meth labs that I can no longer hear the explosions. Money buys gates and the freedom from needing a .38 tucked into the elastic waistband of my sweatpants. The justice system, which was always my enemy in the absence of money, has suddenly become my friend.
  Money is allowing me to buy a family. Rare is the woman who will overlook a second-hand Wal-Mart shirt and rarer still is the woman who will do so while possessing a majority of her teeth. It buys fashion, it buys taste, it buys class and it buys one’s status as a gentleman – if only at first glance. It buys me first dates in nice coffee shops and the means with which to have a weekend getaway. Money buys, in some order, sex, marriage and offspring with a chance to be something in the world. If I’m able to get enough, money will give me a place the grandkids want to visit someday, and not the mold infested superfund cite my grandparents died in. It will keep my future wife from crying softly over a checkbook and spare my future children from lying, like I did, to protect the family honor.

  I reflect on this and wonder if, perhaps, we a little more happiness than they’d like to admit.

This article first appeared, in abbreviated form, on


  1. Money does have its advantages. The problem arises when we don’t have enough to cover basic needs.

      1. Wants are a different matter, needs are a necessity.

      2. True. Although another part, I think, is that people want to have status. Being really low status sucks.

      3. Remember that humility will take you further than pride. Status is nice but it can be a bit of a sham.

      4. In my experience … sort of.

        When your status is very low, people think you’re criminal. They won’t help you when you need it. They won’t trust you. They will assume you’re stupid. They will dismiss your ideas. It’s humiliating.

        And humility can be pretty awful as well. In my experience, it basically means accepting the humiliation you get from having a low status, hating yourself enough that you allow others to run you over.

        I believe there’s a sweet spot between humility and arrogance. I choose to call this confidence and I wrote an article about it.

        Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      5. I think you have the balance right. Confidence is the thing to aim for. You have no control over what other people think of you so you can’t let that worry you. Just have faith in yourself.

  2. to me the biggest disadvantage of going from no money to money is losing perspective. Otherwise, the things which create our happiness or sadness (family, events, etc) are immaterial of the size of the wallet (my opinion).

    But I agree about the money can’t buy happiness cliche. Reminds me of that line from Liar Liar when his son says “my teacher said beauty is on the inside.” Jim Carrey responds “that’s just something ugly people say.” Ha!

    Relevant. Things we tell ourselves to feel better about a disadvantageous situation. Like believing in karma.

    I enjoyed this Ben, good piece sir.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I’m frankly horrified of being poor again. I will do almost anything to avoid it. If it meant lying, cheating and stealing, I’d lie cheat and steal. But then again, I think I had a different experience of running out of money than most people.

      Thanks for stopping by,

  3. Money does not buy happiness; at the same time absence of money is a guarantee to unhappiness.

    Like you, I have also seen both sides of the picture- I grew up without a single thing that my kids take for granted today- a car, TV, refrigerator, new clothes, a choice of footwear (just one pair- all weather), toys……
    But today, I realise that possessing all these is not the key to happiness!

    Enjoyed reading your post- thank you!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Where did you grow up?

      1. India.
        In its southermost state, just above the Equator: Kerala.
        What about you?

  4. You know already that I love this post. Doesn’t hurt to say it again though.

    1. Thanks so much. I was worried it’d be repetitious … :/

  5. Love this post. I was having this debate with myself recently (recall I’m often out running alone with nothing but my thoughts and my dog to amuse me). I recently moved to part-time employment and love having more time to do what I want, however, I have less money. I can’t say I’m less happy yet, but I feel less secure which may lead to a form of unhappiness. It’s an interesting debate.

    1. What kind of a job are you doing now?

      1. Community relations for an oil and gas company.

      2. How’s that? It sounds stressful.

      3. It can be stressful. Sometimes its fun too, but mostly stressful. I need the extra time off to decompress 😊

  6. Happiness is always fleeting no matter where you are financially. If you’re an ingrate poor, you’ll be an ingrate rich. If you’re open to happiness you’ll find it.

    If we’re talking about how other people see us or how we have to dress to keep a job that’s not really happiness, just a means to an end.

    Getting excited because people gush when we have nice things is just pride which in the end never satisfies for more than a few minutes. I like having the money to buy beautiful things because they’re beautiful (and sometimes to impress others). People often act generous to impress others as well. The heart is a complex thing.

    1. Hmm, have you ever seen a happy homeless person? And I have to say, respect makes me happy. Disrespect really, really makes me unhappy. Being poor was unambiguously miserable for me, but now that I’m middle class, I’m much happier. Do you have a different experience?

      Thanks for stopping by,

      1. I have worked with the poor in Nicaragua–walking miles for water, tin huts, etc and those people, in general were just as happy as a random American. Now the ones who were living in the garbage pile outside of Managua sniffing glue were out of their minds and possibly miserable.

        But anyone with mental illness or addiction problems probably isn’t happy all the time. I worked at a homeless shelter for battered women in Brooklyn and their misery came from feeling hunted–not poor. And I’ve been poor myself with less than thirty dollars a week to feed a family of four.

        Respect and disrespect are about pride (I have tons of pride) but I question if one can ever be truly happy if we search for well-being through the opinions others have for us.

        I remember living in basically a tenement and feeling miserable when my rich friends tried to act like they thought it was okay. That was my pride problem (and theirs).

        I hate when people say that rich people are always unhappy as well. I don’t believe it. Some are happy some aren’t. Maybe it’s all about serotonin levels 🙂

      2. Your anecdote about the Nicaraguans makes me wonder if misery isn’t more a function of lowered status rather than ultimate material possession.

        In other words, it might better to live in a teepee when everybody else is in caves than to live in a shack when everybody else has a three bedroom apartment.

      3. Agreed. As long s we base our happiness on competition there’s always room for unhappiness. I will say that having flannel sheets on a cold night does make me extremely happy. Have a great week, Ben!

  7. Money is a medium of exchange so it’s a truism to say that it can buy all these things. The real question is whether the things that you buy with money bring you happiness and the answer is that sometimes they do but more often they don’t, because, human nature being what it is, we are soon dissatisfied and want more things to feel content. Some people will see your rich looking clothes and will respect you, others, like myself, will see them and think something different 🙂 Do you really value the respect of people who are so easily influenced by external trappings?

    1. In my experience, everyone is easily influenced by external trappings. So yeah, I value humanity.

      I should explain, though. I’ve never met anyone who will overlook desperation level poverty and, even worse, I ‘ve only rarely met people who won’t look at someone struggling and assume the problems aren’t the direct consequences of deep moral failings.

      I sold and gave up everything I could think of to help my family through a tough several years and society, as an overwhelming whole, treated me like a criminal and idiot. When I got middle class money again and started living basically selfishly, basically only for my self, suddenly I became respectable. Even the people for whom I’d been sacrificing treated me better once I could afford designer blue jeans.

      I should further explain I doubt there’s much happiness to be gained going from Toyota to Lexus, Timex to Rolex or Lucky Brand to Gucci. There is, however, a huge amount of happiness to be gained going from uninsured and unregistered Honda that burns more oil than gas to a city with functional public transit. There is a huge amount of happiness to be gained going from stealing clothes out of locker rooms to buying clothes at TJMax.

      Being listened to, being trusted, not having to screw others to survive- these are all luxuries.

  8. Money can buy many things, all the things you mention. I have been both ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ and I prefer rich. Money can’t buy the guarantee that one will awaken from sleep in the morning, indeed, what can? Money can’t buy joy, that ‘indefinite article’ that makes people who do not have the things that money can buy, things that bring transient happiness, smile and sing despite deep poverty.

    The happiness that every new toy money bought me, lasts less and less. The advantages it confers mean less and less. And yet, I’d rather have than have not.

    Nice one Ben. Lets me confront my materialism head on . . .

    1. Toys – yeah, they aren’t much for lasting happiness. Status, though, that’s a different animal in my experiences.

      Have a great day. 🙂

  9. I suppose money is a double-edged sword. Couple of years ago I was out of a job and had to penny-pinch to make ends meets. This year I’ve been lucky to have money rolling into the bank for the whole year and shopping and buying food has become very enticing. I think the value of saving and thinking ahead is lost on a lot of us. We’re so focused on getting what we want now and we’re not afraid to throw our money away on trivial things. With careful planning, it really isn’t that hard to put some money aside for a rainy day.

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