Nothing feels better in these challenging financial times than the comforting thought that money cannot buy you happiness.
With the pandemic and technology exacerbating the precariousness of work, the increasing realisation that home ownership in Australia is returning to the class inheritance model of previous centuries, the outrage of executive pay and inequality rising; at least one small crumb of comfort is surely that, above the threshold of having the necessities of life, you are more likely to be happy if you don't have a lot of money.
This idea can be seen in the increasingly fashionable interest in both Buddhism and Stoic thought. If the happiness equation involves the difference between what we have, and what we want, then the path to happiness involves either acquiring more, or wanting less. Both Buddhism and Stoicism focus on the latter, cultivating the minimisation of what we want.
But is this approach possible or virtuous? And how should we think about the relationship between money and happiness? Curtin theoretical research suggests two ways of thinking that may help us navigate the connection.
Firstly, from Aristotle, we should distinguish between instrumental goods like money - goods that are valuable for what they lead too, and intrinsic goods like happiness - that are good in themselves. Money has no intrinsic value, it is not good in itself. But it is instrumentally valuable, because of what it leads to - hobbies, education, holidays and the like, these things strengthen the intrinsic goods of authenticity, knowledge and relationships.
Secondly, so ubiquitous are possessions they tend to fade into the background when not considered, whilst becoming overly present when we are conscious of them. A consequence of possessions fading into the background of our normal lives is we often fail to see how useful they are in promoting happiness. Like the initially hot shower that becomes lukewarm once we are acclimatised, we often fail to notice the myriad ways money instrumentally aids our happiness. Returning to our happiness equation, we often fail to focus on what we have.
When people are quizzed on the role money plays in their happiness we tend to focus on what we don't have and want. This distorts our self reports of happiness. In short, we should recognise the instrumental role of money in our happiness, focusing both on what we have, whilst cultivating modest desires for what we want. This is important to know because we all must negotiate the role, priority, and place of money in our lives.
- Mike Baldwin, Curtin University.