The Scientific Reason Behind Why Money Makes Us Happy

“Whoever said money can’t buy you happiness, probably never had any.”– Samuel L Jackson

Have you ever wondered why we have such a deep fascination with money? What is it in our brains that correlates cold hard cash with a feeling of joy? In this article we will attempt to find some scientific explanation for why money makes us happy.

What Is Happiness, Chemically-Speaking?

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Let’s start with a scientific look at what happens inside our brains when we feel happy. There are four main chemicals that our brains release that are related to us feeling happiness. These are Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphin. They are released by our brains in several different areas, but the Limbic portion of our brain is primarily the one responsible for our feeling of happiness. (Psychology Today)

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Dopamine is released when we get something we have really wanted or when we get excited about something, like a raise or gift. Serotonin starts flowing when we feel important or valued. Oxytocin flows when we have a feeling of trust and intimacy. Finally, Endorphins are pleasure chemicals triggered to help temporarily mask pain.

Now that we know which chemicals are released by our brains during “happy” times, we can look at the type of behavior we exhibit when we release these chemicals.

We’re Convinced: Money Can Buy Happiness

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A study published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology claimed the theory that “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you simply aren’t spending it right.” This claim was backed by research and provided several good points about how money can actually buy things that make us feel happy, and therefore money can buy happiness. If a person who has a good deal of money does not often feel a sense of happiness, they are simply not spending their money on the right things.

Let’s look a little closer at their thinking, supported by 8 basic principles:

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1. You should buy experiences rather than things.

This argument is supported by the fact that people are often happier when they spend their money on an experience rather than on a material item. This is because they both anticipate and remember an experience more than they do an item.

2. Help others instead of yourself.

Because humans are hyper-social beings, they are dependent on social relationships for happiness. By improving our social connections by spending money, we are in turn creating a happier social circle.

3. Buy lots of little things instead of one big thing.

Research shows that by spreading money over the purchase of many smaller items, we are extending the happy feeling. If we only bought one item, even if it were a larger purchase, that happiness would fizzle out sooner.

4. Buy less insurance.

This study refers to extended warranties as insurance against unhappiness. It is an interesting comparison because if you think about it, that’s exactly what you are buying with a warranty – insurance to replace or repair something if something happens to it. This study theorizes that by purchasing these extended warranties, we are setting our brains up to think and expect the worst. This makes the experience overall a less happy one.

5. Pay now and consume later.

This thinking is very different than the typical spending habits of many Americans who purchase items for consumption now on credit cards that ultimately must be paid off later. With this theory, you should pay for items up front and enjoy them later, building anticipation and eliminating any worry about debt later.

6. Think about what you’re not thinking about.

Happiness is usually in the details. When we buy a large item, like a new car or a family home, it is not the metal of the car or the wood of the house that makes us happy. It is the drive we take with that special someone or the birthday parties we have for our children that evokes that special happiness and the greatest memories.

7. Beware of comparison shopping.

By focusing too much on comparison shopping and trying to get the best deal on a product, we lose sight of what it is about that item that makes us feel happy.

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8. Follow the herd instead of your head.

Research suggests that the best way to predict how much we may enjoy a particular product or event is to see how much other people enjoyed it.

These 8 simple principles are quite simple in their claims, but make a lot of sense when you think about them and how they relate to the way we spend our money. This research points out the fact that money allows people to live longer, healthier lives because they can afford better medical care. Their money can provide them a shield against worry and harm, and allow them a lifestyle that involves more free time and less hours spent working.

This free time with family and friends, along with all the “toys” anyone could want, and the longer, healthier lifestyles are all ingredients for a happy life. Therefore, if people with large amounts of money do not experience a sense of happiness on a regular basis, then they simply are not spending it the right way. Blair Waldorf sums it up perfectly in Gossip Girl with the famous quote: “Whoever said that money doesn’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop,” while toting Gucci shopping bags around Paris.

We’ll Always Want Just a Little Bit More

Money Happiness

But let’s look at the relationship between money and happiness from another perspective. Despite the fact that we are the wealthiest civilization that has ever existed on our planet, we still have the shared feeling that we don’t have enough money. We also commonly feel that no matter how much money we already have, we would be happier if we had more.

In our article “How much money does it take to be considered “rich” in the US?” we found that achieving “rich” status is relative. The richest guy on the block will always want more, and will never be quite satisfied with what he’s got.

Why is it that no matter how much we have, we always want more? This theory can take us back to the release of that brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is not only released when we experience a moment of joy, but also what is released when someone takes many kinds of illegal drugs. That “high” that they feel is literally the major release of dopamine into their system. The need to feel that “high” again is what keeps an addict using drugs. (The Mind Sanctuary)

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Similarly, it seems that no matter how much money we have, we need more to feel happy or satisfied. Like a drug addict, we are constantly chasing that feeling that will continue to escape us if we rely on the wrong things to achieve it.

Money Makes Us Happy, But It Isn’t Everything

So, while the act of earning or receiving money can trigger a sense of happiness, it is important to not get wrapped up in the addiction and constant need for more. There are a number of things that can provide us with happiness in our lives, and while money may be one of them, it certainly should not be the only one.

Take time to enjoy the simper things in life. Find joy in things other than money, like hobbies and family time. After all, money isn’t everything…

Money can buy a house… but it cannot buy a home.

Money can buy a bed… but it cannot buy sleep.

Money can buy a clock… but it cannot buy time.

Money can buy you a book… but it cannot buy knowledge.

Money can buy you a position… but it cannot buy you respect.

Money can buy you medicine… but it cannot buy you health.

Money can buy you blood… but it cannot buy you life.

Money can buy you sex… but it cannot buy you love.

Money can buy you fun… but it cannot buy you happiness.

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  • Audrey Henderson

    I am absolutely a believer in #1. My best memories are connected with events — trips taken, celebrations shared or just time spent with people I care about. But I kind of have to push back on #4. Having just dropped major cash on a new computer after being caught flat-footed when my old one kicked the bucket, I learned my lesson and bought PLENTY of insurance for the replacement, LOL.

  • Money IS addicting and valuable, and life-changing for some. But it’s important to understand that it’s just paper—you don’t need a lot to be happy.