Do You Really Need Money To Be Happy?

Can money actually buy you happiness? Find out what experts have to say.

  • Happiness depends on multiple factors, including personal values and needs.
  • Income levels can positively or negatively impact both happiness and stress.
  • Gratitude for other areas of life can create feelings of happiness regardless of a person's financial situation.

They say money can't buy you happiness. And most people strive to live and create a happy life for themselves. But is it possible that money could help you do that? Let's take a look at how money can affect happiness and what really defines happiness.

What Is Happiness?

The definition of true happiness varies from person to person. "While a person's happiness often depends on their safety and well-being—on their salary—it also depends on their values," licensed mental health therapist Billy Roberts told Health.

Of course, people are driven by different values. For some, value lies in power; others find value in security or self-care. "A person who is driven by power might have different financial needs than someone who is driven by security," explained Roberts. These factors can affect a person's happiness or perception of happiness, altering the amount of money they truly need to feel satisfied emotionally.

"At the end of the day, the salary should support a value-driven lifestyle," said Roberts, "so the number is less important than that number allowing a person to drive in their 'values lane,' so to speak."

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Does Happiness Increase With Income?

A 2021 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article looked at the complicated and complex relationship between money and well-being. The data suggested that happiness actually increases the higher a person's income rises. Meaning that the more money we make, the happier we become (or rather, we have the means to buy the things or experiences that in turn make us happy).

The article surveyed more than 33,000 employed U.S. adults and more than 1.7 million sampling reports and discovered a direct connection between higher incomes, feeling better day-to-day, and being more satisfied with life overall.

Does Poverty Affect Happiness?

On the flip side, people with low income may be experiencing more stress. Licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor Margaret Sala, PhD, who practices in Connecticut, told Health that poverty can amplify the experience of misfortunes and stressors. In other words, people with lower income levels may increase perceptions of unhappiness or other negative emotions.

Illness can also be a factor that affects happiness. "Illness can be much worse for those who are poor and unable to seek medical care," said Dr. Sala. Another example from Dr. Sala: not getting help with difficult tasks—such as childcare or house cleaning—that those with more comfortable lifestyles often don't need to worry about.

Does Stress Affect Happiness?

But, Dr. Sala argued that some individuals with higher salaries may not be able to enjoy small pleasures in life due to stressful and time-demanding jobs.

A survey in 2018 from LinkedIn found that U.S. employees making more money experienced significantly higher levels of stress—up to 68% more for top earners taking in over $200,000. While these higher incomes buy pleasures such as nice vacations and meals at restaurants, Dr. Sala noted that stress can play a key factor in one's overall happiness.

What's the Science Behind It?

The connection between money and happiness isn't just a feeling or perception: There's a science behind the phenomenon.

"From a neuroscience perspective, scarcity of money and resources signals to our brain that there is a threat to our survival," Renetta Weaver, doctor of metaphysics and licensed clinical social worker, told Health.

In fact, poverty can influence a person's cognitive function, altering the way they think and reducing performance in verbal memory and processing speed, according to a 2013 article published in Science.

Can You Be Happy Without Money?

In the event that money can't actually buy happiness, how can people be happy with what they have, regardless of income level? "If we don't equate money and things to our worth and value, we find happiness in the things that money can't buy," said Weaver, "such as quality time and experiences with oneself and others."

Milana Perepyolkina, an international bestselling author of two books about happiness, added that people confuse pleasure with happiness, meaning correlations between salary and emotional well-being may not be accurate. "If you eat a piece of cake, you experience pleasure," Perepyolkina told Health. "As soon as you are done, the pleasure is gone. When you spend money, you experience pleasure. Several hours later, this pleasure is also gone."

Perepyolkina noted that even in certain people "who live in very poor conditions, such as makeshift plastic tents with all of their possessions fitting in one bag, you will notice joyful, bright smiles. How can someone who has almost nothing be so happy? This is because they are grateful for what they have: their life, their family, and their community."

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