Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness, Explained by Clichés

Wealth and happiness

Wealth and happiness

Don’t you love those Aha moments when something you’ve always known intuitively but couldn’t understand is finally explained?  Money (and other stuff) doesn’t buy happiness.  We all know that, but how many of us live that?  Our consumer-driven society pursues and values money as if it is the ultimate prize.  “He who has the most, wins.”  As if winning is even the most important thing.

Those that are fabulously successful are not necessarily happier than anyone else.  But why?

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt explains that when we make a step closer to a goal, we receive a little burst of dopamine, a neurochemical that mediates pleasure.   Every time we progress, move forward on our journey, jump over yet another hurdle, we get that dopamine reward.  However, the dopamine reward is short-lived and is most effective when its release occurs right after the accomplishment.  In other words, a major accomplishment will still only provide a relatively small and transient burst of dopamine despite the magnitude of the prize because you probably worked long and hard toward that goal.  Then, after a few hours or days, you’ll be wondering, “Now what?”

So undoubtedly we’ve all experienced this anti-climactic response to a major accomplishment.  For me, tenure was the ultimate anti-climactic experience.  I think I actually became depressed, because I didn’t like the answer to the  “Now what?”   Twenty-two years of education and six years on the tenure track.  I’d call that delayed gratification to the Nth degree.  And the reward (the path to professor) was something I could not fathom pursuing.

Therefore, money, stuff, or tenure does not buy happiness. But the journey does.  Each step closer to a goal gives us that burst of dopaminergic happiness.  Maybe that means we should really just be in the present moment rather than saving our joy for the future.

I hear this notion from my students over and over.  “I’ll just be satisfied/happy/content/quit worrying when I graduate.”  Nope.  It doesn’t work that way and now I know why.

So let’s really live by the other tried and true adage, “Life is short.  Eat dessert first.”  Chocolate cake anyone?