By Michael Silverman
“Be content with what you have.” – Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher
“I am content; that is a blessing greater than riches.” – Henry Fielding, English novelist
Would you be happier if you had more money? Does wealth lead to greater contentment in life? This age-old question has been the subject of much research, and even inspired a few books.
Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” comes to mind. The impoverished Cratchit family share love and joy at Christmastime, but miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is lonely and miserable.
In “Silas Marner” by George Eliot, the protagonist hoards and counts his money, yet is ostracized by the villagers. When his money is stolen, Marner becomes disconsolate. His unhappiness evaporates when he adopts and learns to love an orphaned little girl.
“Contentment is natural wealth. Luxury is artificial poverty.” – Socrates
What does research tell us about the connection, if any, between having lots of financial assets and being content? A study last year surveyed more than 1,500 Americans 24 to 93 years old.
Participants were asked to rate their agreement with a number of statements designed to get at positive emotions (love, compassion, amusement, enthusiasm, etc.). They were also asked about their monetary means.
The findings? While some measure of financial security does relate positively to overall peace of mind, there was no direct correlation between prosperity and happiness. In fact, as wealth increased, the experiences of compassion and love went down.
Positive emotions experienced by people with higher incomes mainly focused on themselves. Selfish? By contrast, people with lower incomes took more pleasure in their relationships with others.
“Contentment makes a poor man rich. Discontent makes a rich person poor.” – Benjamin Franklin
In a Princeton study from 2010, it was concluded that happiness increases along with income, but only up to $75,000, after which it plateaus. Thus, money and happiness were merely partly correlated, no causally connected.
A classic 1978 study found that lottery winners of more than $50,000 derived less pleasure from everyday activities such as chatting with friends or watching TV than did recent victims of catastrophic accidents. Another study showed that many super-rich people felt overwhelmed by financial stress. They spent too much time thinking about and worrying over money issues.
Other research concludes that people get more contentment from spending on experiences than on material items, and that spending on other people generates more happiness than splurging on oneself.
Obsessing over having more money stops one from enjoying many other important aspects of life.
Finally, in a 2019 study by Charles Schwab investment firm, 72% of respondents said that true wealth is not about dollars, but rather the way you live your life.
So, to quote Oprah Winfrey, “Be thankful for what you have. You’ll end up having more.”