Can money buy happiness?

Crosby_2015-150x150 Dr. Daniel Crosby Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.” – Henry David Thoreau

In your Psych 100 class, you were likely introduced to the concept of “operationalization,” where one concrete variable serves as proxy for a fuzzier, harder to measure construct. It is no secret that for many, the amount of wealth they have amassed serves as shorthand for happiness, but such is hardly the case. While wealth is positively correlated with well-being to a point, disconnecting money from purpose is a formula for emotional bankruptcy. One such self-delusional variant of chasing money for happiness is the “I’ll stop ignoring my happiness when I reach XYZ number.” Your magic number may be a salary or it may be a wished-for dollar amount to have in the bank. Whatever it is, I can promise you that when you get there, it won’t seem like enough. You see, we are not conditioned to think of money in terms of “enough.” As one of my clients once said to me, “Doc, you can never be too rich or too skinny.”

The scientific name for this phenomenon is the “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation,” referring to the fact that we must make more and more money to keep our level of happiness in the same place. What tends to happen is that our expectations rise and fall with our earnings (as well as other circumstances in our life), keeping our happiness at a relatively stable place. To demonstrate this effect, I’d like for you to consider two groups that seemingly have little in common – paraplegics and lottery winners.

Can money buy happiness

 
Suppose I asked you, “Which would make you happier, winning the lottery or being in a crippling accident?” Not too tough, right? So, we would hypothesize that one-year after the life-changing event, lottery winners would be much happier and paraplegics would be much sadder. But this is simply not the case. One year after their respective events, it makes little difference whether you are riding in a Bentley or a wheelchair – happiness levels remain relatively static.

Why? We tend to overpredict the impact of external events on our happiness. One year later, paraplegics have discovered their accidents were not as catastrophic as they may have feared and have coped accordingly. Similarly, lottery winners have found out that having money brings with it a variety of complications. No amount of spending can take away some of the tough things life throws at each and every one of us. As the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” In much the same way, we tend to project forward to a hypothesized happier time, when we have more money in the bank or are making a bigger salary. The fact of the matter is, when that day arrives, we are unlikely to recognize it and will simply project forward once again, hoping in vain that something outside of ourselves will come and make it all better.

A recent Princeton study set out to answer the age-old question, “Can money buy happiness?” Their answer? Sort of. Researchers found that making little money did not cause sadness in and of itself but it did tend to heighten and exacerbate existing worries. For instance, among people who were divorced, 51 percent of those who made less than $1,000 a month reported having felt sad or stressed the previous day, whereas that number fell to 24 percent among those earning more than $3,000 a month. Having more money seems to provide those undergoing adversities with greater security and resources for dealing with their troubles. However, the researchers found that this effect (mitigating the impact of difficulty) largely disappears at $75,000.

For those making more than $75,000 a year, individual differences have much more to do with happiness than money. While the study does not make any specific inferences as to why $75,000 is the magic number, I’d like to take a stab at it. Most families making $75,000 a year have enough to live in a safe home, attend quality schools, and have appropriate leisure time. Once these basic needs are met, quality of life has less to do with buying happiness and more to do with individual attitudes. After all, someone who makes $750,000 can buy a faster car than someone who makes $75,000, but his or her ability to get from point A to point B is not substantially improved. Once our basic financial needs are met, the rest is up to us. Hard work provides the means, but we must find our meaning.

If happiness does not come from hitting the lottery and sadness is not borne of personal tragedy, what does make us happy? Well, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how well-adjusted your parents are), a great deal of happiness comes from our “hedonic set point,” which is genetically determined. A ten-year, longitudinal study of 1,093 identical twins found that between 44 percent and 52 percent of subjective wellbeing is accounted for by genetic factors. So, roughly half of what makes you happy is out of your control I’m sorry to say.

Of the remaining 50 percent, roughly 10 percent is due to external circumstances and a whopping 40 percent is due to intentional activities, or the choices we make and the purpose we create. We discussed before how we tend to overrate the importance of the things that happen to us, and sure enough, only 10 percent of what makes us happy is accounted for by lucky and unlucky breaks. Eighty percent of the non-genetic components of happiness can be controlled by our attitude and by making choices that are consistent with finding true joy. The first step in this pursuit is ensuring that the goals we are setting for ourselves are consistent with finding true happiness.

If 80 percent of the happiness that is in our control comes from setting and working toward positive goals, what sort of goals should we be setting? Headey has found that goals focused on enriching relationships and social resources are likely to increase wellbeing. We connect with a number of close friends and find joy within those relationships. On the other hand, he found that goals based around monetary achievement have a negative effect on overall wellbeing. Unlike friendship, which we “consume” in limited but satisfying quantities, we feel as though we can never really reach a financial goal. Having a core group of close friends sates us; it is sufficient to meet our social needs and we do not pine for ever-greater numbers of friends. Not so with financial goals; just as we reach our former goal, the hedonic treadmill kicks in and our excitement over having “arrived” is gone in an instant. Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a happiness expert at Harvard University, says that pursuing wealth at the expense of more satisfying goals has a high opportunity cost. “When people spend their effort pursuing material goods in the belief that they will bring happiness, they’re ignoring other, more effective routes to happiness.” The simple fact is this: chasing money and material goods is an itch that our flawed psychology will never let us scratch, unless we can define our financial goals in terms of the personal ends they will meet.

In a money-obsessed world that has socialized us to chase the almighty dollar, it can be weirdly unsettling to learn that money isn’t everything. As much as we whine about money, having something that is the physical embodiment of happiness is nice. We can hold it, save it, get more of it, all while mistakenly thinking that getting paid is how we “arrive.” Realizing that money does not directly equate to meaning can leave us with a sense of groundlessness, but once we’ve stripped away that faulty foundation, we can replace it with things that lead to less evanescent feelings of happiness. Breaking your overreliance on money as a substitute for real joy is a great first step, a second step is learning to spend your wealth in ways that matter.

Lest we swing from the extreme of “money is the only good” to the opposite extreme of “money is no good,” it is worth noting that there are ways in which money can be spent to improve happiness. A lot of our troubles with money stem from the way we spend it, thinking that buying “things” will make us happy. We engage in retail therapy, which is quickly followed by feelings of regret at being overextended. Before we know it, we’re surrounded by the relics of our discontent; the things we bought to be happy become constant reminders that we’re not. Instead of amassing a museum of junk, spend your money on things of real value. Spend a little more on quality, healthy food and take the time to savor your new purchases. Use your money to invest in a dream – pay yourself to take a little time off and write that novel about which you’ve always dreamt. Give charitably and experience the joy of watching those less fortunate benefit from your wealth. A growing body of research suggests that the most important way in which money makes us happy is when we give it away. Finally, spend money on having special experiences with your loved ones. It’s true that money doesn’t directly buy happiness, but it can do a great deal to facilitate it if you approach it correctly.

The Center for Outcomes, powered by Brinker Capital, has prepared a system to help advisors employ the value of behavioral alpha across all aspects of their work – from business development to client service and retention. To learn more about The Center for Outcomes and Brinker Capital, call us at 800-333-4573.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

You’re Scared to Bring it Up

weber_bioBrad Weber AIF®, Regional Director, Retirement Plan Services

A 2004 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association says that 73% of Americans name money as the number one factor that affects their stress level. Number one. The New York Times reports that couples who reported disagreeing about finance once a week were over 30% more likely to get divorced than couples who reported disagreements a few times a month.1 So, in addition to being stress-inducing public enemy number one, money is also highly implicated in whether or not we stay married. It’s no wonder then that we tread lightly around retirement or don’t bring it up at all!

The most common behavior in response to the overwhelming anxiety of preparing for three decades of not working is that we may ignore the conversation entirely. After all, we erroneously suppose, “If I ignore it maybe it will go away.” As anyone who has ever put off a project can attest, it never goes away and anxiety is only compounded as a deadline approaches. In college this may have been as inconsequential as pulling an all-nighter and receiving a subpar grade. With retirement planning, it could quite literally have disastrous personal consequences.

A recent study by the American Institute of CPAs2 found that speaking to children about money to children was among parents’ lowest priorities. In fact, money issues were trumped by good manners, sound eating habits, the need for good grades, the dangers of drugs, and the risks of smoking in terms of perceived importance. Our reticence to talk about money is certainly not out of lack of need. An Accenture report states that Baby Boomers will leave $30 trillion to their children in the next 30 years. This doesn’t even take into account the almost $12 trillion that MetLife predicts that Boomers will receive from their parents. The fact is, money will be changing hands within families at an unprecedented rate in the years to come and we are ill equipped to make the exchange.

There are a number of reasons why talking about money may be so difficult. One is that there has been a vitriolic reaction against the wealthy in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the global financial crisis. This sentiment was illustrated quite vividly in the September 24, 2016 Fortune magazine cover article, “Is It Still OK To Be Rich In America?” Another reason for this taboo may have a higher source.

The Bible, the best-selling book of all time and a foundational text for a majority of Americans, mentions money no less than 250 times. While not all Biblical references to money are negative, there are certainly enough references to “filthy lucre” to give pause. To a nation founded on Protestant ideals about work and morality, the notion of wealth as potentially corrosive is one that is deeply embedded in the collective American consciousness.

John Levy, a counselor to people who have recently inherited money found the following reasons for the money taboo among his clientele (as cited in O’Neil, 1993):3

  • Good taste – “It’s just not done.”
  • Fear of manipulation – “It will give them power over me.”
  • Concern for spoiling children – “They will never make anything of themselves.”
  • Embarrassment – “I don’t deserve to be so much better off than others.”
  • Fear of being judged – “All they can see is my money.”

Perhaps some of the reasons above are resonant with your personal situation and perhaps not, but it seems difficult to deny that money is a subject that puts us all on eggshells. Consider a handful of your best friends. No doubt you could tell me much about their lives; joys and struggles, highs and lows. But I doubt if you could tell me their exact salary, savings or other relevant financial indicators, because we simply don’t talk about them. While this is fine in polite company, this tendency toward silence can extend beyond the cocktail party circuit. Conversations about money tend to be emotionally fraught and tinged with shame and as such, are best handled by professionals adept at de-stigmatizing and reorienting our sometimes misguided thoughts about preparing for our financial future.

Solution: Begin a dialogue around retirement preparedness today with a professional at your place of employment or through a trusted financial advisor. Just as silence leads to greater inaction, a simple conversation can lead to life-changing progress.

For 10 years, Brinker Capital Retirement Plan Services has been working with advisors to offer plan sponsors the solutions to help participants reach their retirement goals.  The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Sources:

1 “Money Fights Predict Divorce Rates,” Catherine Rampell, The New York Times, December 7, 2009.

2  “Money Among Lowest Priorities in Talks Between Parents, Kids,” AICPA, August 9, 2012.

3 “The Paradox of Success,” John O’Neil. New York: Putnam, 1993.

Safeguarding the Family Enterprise: Children and Wealth

Tom WilsonTom Wilson, Managing Director, Private Client Group &
Senior Investment Manager

A blog in a continuing series on the safeguarding of the family enterprise.

There is a Chinese proverb that goes, “Wealth does not pass three generations.”  This fits the notion that when significant wealth is created by the first generation of a family, the second generation gets to enjoy it, but the third generation, which was so far removed from the work ethic of the first generation, squanders it.

The conversation of wealth is often missed between parents and children.  For wealthy parents, discussing money with children can be a daunting task.  When is the best age to discuss the subject?  How much is too much information?  What if I want to give my money away to charity?  The stress surrounding these questions can often prevent these conversations from taking place.

Safguarding the Family EnterpriseWhile these questions, and others, are difficult to bring up, they are essential.  They will provide the context to determine the balance between providing enough money so that the children can pursue their dreams without a concern for their finances, and not providing so much of an inheritance that a feeling of entitlement or loss of self-purpose develops.  Warren Buffet said it best when he noted that he wanted to leave enough money for his heirs so they can do anything, but not so much money that they can do nothing.

A Wall Street Journal article on the subject gave several suggestions on how to speak with kids about generational wealth.  A favorite was the example of a pre-teen son who approached his mother and asked, “Are we rich?”  The mother replied, “Your father and I are. But you are not.”

A holistic approach to wealth management can go beyond asset allocation and financial planning.  Make sure you participate in the educating of children around family wealth.