Money can’t buy happiness: it’s a rarely questioned truism. It also tends to be most enthusiastically embraced by those who have never gone without it. “I’ve tried hard to care about money,” Chelsea Clinton once humble-bragged, “but I couldn’t.” No matter how attached we are to the idea that money can’t buy happiness, though, the research shows almost the complete opposite.
After community and social relationships, the association between income and wellbeing is one of the most robust in the happiness literature. And a new study demonstrates just how deep-seated that psychological link is, how intricately our financial circumstances weave their way into our psyches.
Money doesn’t just shield us from obvious daily stresses, this study tells us, but can actually buy us the most basic of our psychological needs – human connection. The higher our income, the less likely we are to experience loneliness.
This study builds on a wide body of research giving a similar message. Although money is clearly no guarantee of contentment, and there are anomalies in the data, as a general rule, the better off we are financially, the happier we are.
But yet we still restate our fridge-magnet mantra about the irrelevance of money to happiness over and over again, a cosy boast of our lack of materialism. And in recent years, with the advent of the highly influential “positive psychology” movement, this idea has been given a new academic respectability.
Right from the start, the basic philosophical underpinning of most of the positive psychology movement has been that our circumstances (including our financial circumstances) are of minimal consequence to our happiness. Instead, what really matters is our attitude. In this worldview, with the right techniques and enough emotional elbow-grease we can “positive think” our way out of almost any adversity.
Often using small or methodologically flawed studies as evidence, positive psychologists restate over and over the claim that money is of minimal importance to wellbeing. “Increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness” writes Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania in his seminal positive psychology book, Authentic Happiness.