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Imagine you could go to a department store and buy happiness. How would a package of happiness look? How much would it cost? More importantly, how long would it last? In our affluent culture, much emphasis is placed on earning more, spending more, getting more. But what price do we pay to get more? How long are we satisfied before we need to go to the next level?

Money and happiness are related, just not as much as we think. It seems that the most important thing we can do is be born in an affluent democracy rather than an impoverished dictatorship. People are much less likely to be happy when they are scrambling to meet their basic survival needs. Once people get over the poverty line, extra money doesn’t contribute that much to happiness. In fact happiness researchers have found that in spite of rising standards of living, the percentage of people in the United States who described themselves as “very happy” has dropped from 34% in the early 1970s to only 30% in the late 1990s.

Affluence can have a dark side. In a recent study, researchers found that people with higher incomes didn’t report being happier during the course of a day but did report higher levels of anger and anxiety. They also spent more time commuting, working and maintaining their homes and other material possessions. These activities tend to lower one’s level of happiness.

Our children aren’t immune to money’s dark side. In “The Price of Privilege” psychologist Madeline Levine says there is an epidemic of emptiness and despair in affluent teens. Between 30 and 40 percent of affluent teenagers suffer from emotional illnesses such as depression and anxiety, three times the rate found in the general population of teenagers. They also have higher rates of drug abuse and are more likely to self mutilate. Levine says this is due in part to their greater connection to material possessions than to people.

We can’t just blame parents for this. Our culture emphasizes individualism and competition, fostering an “I win, you lose” mindset. Competition destroys intimacy and isolates people from one another. To build meaningful social relationships and create a sense of community, we need to stress the virtues of cooperation and reciprocity. Before we became prisoners of our affluence, neighbors helped each other to build barns, sew quilts and harvest food. While we can’t go back to this, there are financial choices we can make to increase our happiness.

We can shift our priorities to getting time instead of money. Working less overtime, taking all of our vacation time, even taking an occasional day off without pay will make us healthier as well as happier. Cutting down our commute can help.  Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University says that commuting is so unpredictable that humans cannot adapt to it. At least keep the commute under 30 minutes. It takes about a minute of recovery time to de-stress from every minute of commute time. If your commute is too long and you have to dive into household chores and family responsibilities the minute you get home, you are unlikely to recover and will be living with chronic stress.

When we free up time and reduce our stress, we have more energy to spend our leisure time on the things that contribute the most to our wellbeing. Instead of getting home too tired to do anything other than watch TV, we can take a walk with a friend or take a class.  When we are not spending our weekends doing household chores or maintenance on our stuff, we can take mini-vacations. Taking vacations reduces our risk of heart disease and with health care costs rising, who can afford to get sick?

(References: Clements, Jonathan. Touchy-Feely Finances: How to Find Out What You Really Want From Your Money. Wall Street Journal, Sept. 13, 2006.

Clements, Jonathan. Money and Happiness: Here’s Why You Won’t Laugh All the Way to the Bank. Wall Street Journal, Aug. 16, 2006.

Halicks, Richard. Teens of Means. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. July 23, 2006.)

Exercise: What does money mean to you?

How can you get that another way?

If money were not an issue, what would you be doing?

How can you do that now?

Girl and puppy