Money cannot buy happiness, says the old adage. Indeed, a study after another indicates that beyond a certain level of income, money stops being a predictor for happiness and overall well-being. What this means in practice is that money is something similar to a hygiene factor. After your basic monetary needs are met, the added value from having more money starts to diminish. Rapidly.
Similar conclusions can be drawn from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Money can be used to satisfy the physiological and safety needs, but the further up you go on the pyramid, the less benefit you get from having money. And if you think money will buy you, for example, the admiration of others, you clearly haven’t been to Finland where most likely all you’re going to get is envy and belittlement.
You could argue that having a lot of money means you are successful in life, and being successful should at least make you confident. In a sense this holds true, but confidence is context-specific (1). Meaning that you might be highly confident, for example, as a salesman at work, but still utterly insecure about how you should go about raising your children or how to talk to the opposite sex. Money does not buy parenting skills.
There is a widespread myth in the western world that goes like this: If I’m successful then I’ll be happy. The problem with this approach is that “every time your brain has a success, you just change the goalpost of what success looks like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we’re going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society.” (2)
The obvious takeaway at this point is that if you want to pursue happiness, you need to focus on things, activities and people who actually make you happy. However, there’s more to this, and after this quite long introduction we are starting to get to the real point: what if happiness is actually a cause of success?
There starts to be plenty of scientific literature supporting the notion that happy individuals are successful in multiple life domains, including work, marriage, friendship, income, performance, health, income level etc., but are they happy because they are successful in those domains, or are they successful because they are happy?
First of all, there is some evidence that positive emotions make us push our cognitive boundaries. In the absence of fear, stress, or anxiety it is easier and safer to go toward and beyond the limits of our comfort zones. For example, interest creates the urge to explore, joy creates the urge to play – to experiment new things – and confidence gives courage to undertake more difficult challenges. The result of these experiences is personal growth. An increase in your cognitive, emotional and physical resources. (3)
When engaged in play, one may be doing something physical, building motor skills, or maybe something creative that strengthens the ability to see multiple solutions to problems. Interest will expand one’s general and specific knowledge. These resources are not fleeting, but build on top of each other and therefore continue expanding the self. However, if you are constantly stressed or anxious the last thing you probably want to do is try new things. To venture further outside your comfort zone.
Because happy people, by definition, experience frequent positive moods, they have a greater likelihood of working actively toward new goals while experiencing those moods. They are also in possession of past skills and resources, which have been built over time during previous pleasant moods. (4)
The important question still remains whether or not happiness actually precedes success, or have the happy individuals encountered first a period of successes which has then launched this upward spiral of happiness and the resulting expansion of personal resources?
Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California and her colleagues set out to analyze 225 different studies in order to find out which comes first: happiness or success. The longitudinal evidence supporting the notion that happiness indeed is a cause of success includes findings such as happy people getting consistently better evaluations at work from their supervisors and being more likely to increase their income over time, among others.
More experimental evidence where subjects have been primed to feel happy show that happiness makes them more sociable, better at collaborating with others, more helpful towards others, and perform better at complex tasks that require decision-making, attention, or are complex by nature. Happiness also increases confidence, perseverance in difficult tasks, and helps to restore willpower after being depleted by temptation. For a comprehensive review of the evidence I recommend reading the whole study. (4)
For me at least this is a game-changer. We as a society have been operating under the wrong paradigm. Instead of focusing on and worrying about success, achievement and competition, we should be thinking about how to increase the number of times we feel positive moods in our daily lives. Success and achievement seem to follow naturally.
However, does this mean then that those of us who are naturally more disposed to negative emotions are lost causes? That we are doomed for eternity to be in the shadow of the happy people? Fortunately not. If you read my previous article you should know that there are fairly simple methods to boosting happiness and inducing positive moods in the short term. For example, just watching this video will have a positive impact on your mood. Not a bad way to spend a minute, considering the benefits.
There is also long-term evidence that interventions such as writing down three good things one is grateful for every day and why those things have happened, have provided lasting increases in happiness (5). So has meditation, using one’s character strengths in new ways, and displays of gratitude toward others.
(1) Bandura, Albert (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, 191-215.
(2) Achor, Shawn (2011). The happy secret to better work. TEDxBloomington, . Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.html [Accessed 22 October 2012].
(3) Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, Vol. 56, No. 3, 218-226.
(4) Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 131, No. 6, 803– 855.
(5) Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 5, 410– 421.