A quick essay on why and how money helps with the pursuit of happiness in life.
“Money doesn’t bring happiness.” That’s a line you must have heard a lot for the last few years. Most of us from the previous two or three decades were educated with the mindset that only our personal dedication to life would bring us happiness. Money didn’t seem mandatory. For some, money would even be a complication. “Find a fulfilling job, find love, find a goal in life, that’s what will make you happy.” that’s what I was advised by most of the adults around me while growing up — teachers, parents, counselors…
But, the more you grow, the more the discourse seems to change. You go to College, and you need to pay for your education, accommodation, food, and nights out… And if you were lucky enough to grow up in a small town like me, you finally discover the world. Beautiful building with high ends apartment — the incarnation of what money will do for you — and homeless people at the foot of those buildings — the embodiment of what having no money will give you. With this new vision, it seems complicated to consider that money doesn’t bring happiness. How could you give such a speech when someone is begging at the end of the street?
Maybe some better advice would be “Lots of money doesn’t bring happiness.”. But is it true? Is 7.25 dollars per hour — the minimum wage in the United States — enough to proclaim being happy? So, will money bring you happiness?
The definition of happiness
To answer this question as scientifically as we can, we first need to define what being happy means.
Happiness is a broad concept, and it might mean something totally different from one person to another. According to vocabulary.com:
Happiness is emotions experienced when in a state of well-being.
But what does it mean to be in a state of well-being?
To answer this question, we can focus on the World Happiness Report, a study published annually by the Earth Insitute at Colombia University. This study aims to categorize happiness around the world, looking for trends that seem to make people happy or unhappy. To do so, they use 7 factors: levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, corruption, and the Cantril ladder.
The first thing you notice while looking at those factors is the presence of the levels of GDP. This proves that money at least has a word to say in the matter.
Another particularly interesting element is the Cantril ladder. It asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10 and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale. This is interesting because you have to consider the fact that this factor is totally out of control. You ask participants to define themselves what the best and the worst are. Meaning you have very few, if not none, means to compare the result. This reflects the fundamental fact that happiness is relative and personal.
Happiness and levels of GDP
A quick way to know if GDP is linked to the other six factors is to use a correlation map. To do so, I imported data from the World Happiness Report from 2008 to 2018 and the GDP data from the World Data Indicator base in a Jupyter notebook. Then I used Pandas — a python library — to get the Pearson Correlation of all the factors. NB: Pearson correlation means this is a linear correlation. This method allows us to know how intricated two factors are. A measure of 1 means the data are fully linked, a -1 means the data are entirely opposed, and 0 means there is no correlation. The correlation is Moderate once the indices excel 0.4; it is Strong if higher than 0.6 and Very strong for 0.8 and higher.
Once the data collected in Python, I used Seaborn — another very cool python library — to plot the data on a heatmap. As you can see, the result is obvious: not only does five, out of the six, factors have a correlation at least moderate with the GDP per capita, but the Cantril ladder has the highest of all. Indeed, the life ladder factor has a strong correlation of 0.72 with the GDP per capita. This means that the more the country is rich, the more its inhabitants describe themselves as happy.
If we plot the Cantril ladder with GDP per capita, we obtain the following.
This graph actually shows a fascinating feature: you can have a low income — or GDP per capita — and, still, feel happy. Indeed, we can see that countries from Latin America & the Caribbean display very high results at the Cantril ladder, while they have what seems to be a moderate GDP per capita. This is incredibly interesting because it shows that while a high GDP guaranties a high level on the ladder, a low of average GDP does not necessarily mean a low one. If we simplify this, it could mean that: high incomes guarantee happiness, but low or moderate-incomes don’t guarantee sadness.
The logic behind the fact
So, in the end, it seems that money does indeed help you to achieve happiness. But why is that? What makes people in countries with high income more likely to be happy?
I found that Casey Neistat — one of my favorite YouTubers — has a perfect answer to this question. He explains his view in his video: Being Rich vs. Being poor — a video essay; that I would highly recommend watching.
In short, he explains the following. You are mainly confronted with two types of problems in life. The first ones, what he calls “Life problems”, are what I would call philosophical issues. They would be: finding love, fulfillment, a purpose… Those problems are solved mostly by living, experiencing new things, meeting people, and self-reflecting. But before you even have the luxury to confront those problems, you face real tough issues or “money problems.”. Those are paying rent, buying food, paying scholarships for your kid, affording healthcare, buying clothes… And the only solution to those problems is money.
Even if money doesn’t solve essential questions like “Who am I?” or “What is my purpose?”, it solves all the critical problems, which keep you away from the philosophical question anyway. Ultimately happiness is how much of those two types you are able to solve. Since money solves the second type entirely, it seems logical that money will guarantee a certain sense of happiness.
I would like to live as a poor man, with a lot of money.
Money guarantees a certain level of happiness by solving crucial day-to-day problems. Having no money doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy; it just means that those problems will be harder to solve. And having lots of money does not actually drive all the pain away, since now you have much time to focus on more complex problems, which don’t have a simple answer.
Of course, you’re free, and I would even encourage you to do so, to develop your own opinion. Many articles are already available online trying to prove that money does or does not help find happiness. I would notably recommend the following: Money Actually Can Buy Happiness, Study Says (vice.com), and Money can’t buy happiness (apa.org). The second one is especially interesting since it defends the antithesis of what I just said. But I’m sure you’ll find plenty of articles yourself, judging by the fact that a Google research of “Money Happiness” will give you no less than 760 million results.