We love to tell ourselves that “money can’t buy happiness.” We say to remember that there’s more to life than money, that our relationships and our experiences and our hobbies and our friends are truly what bring joy and fulfillment to our lives. And yet there’s a part of us that says deep down, “OK, that’s all true…but I could certainly use more money!” So what is the connection between money and happiness?
Well, most studies show that if you’re in back-breaking poverty and can’t make ends meet, you’re unlikely to be particularly happy. But once you reach a level of comfort and have food, shelter and basic necessities, then the link between money and happiness is in fact quite tenuous. And as psychologist Dan Ariely shows us, in many ways, money can actually make people quite miserable.
Ariely explains that when it comes to our feelings about money, happiness is relative. There’s no magic salary that makes people happy — instead, it’s how we fare compared to those around us.
He shares a story about a an employee who was expecting to make $100,000 a year just out of college. In fact, he was making almost $300,000 — and was deeply unhappy. Why? “It’s just that a couple of the guys at the desks next to me, they’re not any better than I am, and they are making $310,000.” (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 16)
If money bought happiness, then objectively speaking, he should be three times happier than he thought he would be. But instead, his focus was on how he was doing relative to everyone else. And so he was miserable.
Keeping Up with the Cohens
Problems arise not when we want things — they arise when we see how the other half lives, and then want what they have. And as Ariely says, that’s why the Ten Commandments ends with, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:17)
Notice that that commandment isn’t about simply wanting something. It doesn’t say, “You shall not want a house, or a field, or a donkey.” The point seems to be that it’s your neighbor’s possessions that you may desire — and that’s where the issue lies. Our deepest yearnings are for things that we can see on a regular basis, and since we can constantly see what our neighbor has, it’s their stuff we want.
But as we all know, it has become easier and easier to see what millions of other people have. Originally, we knew only the people closest to us. But now, a quick Google search can show us exactly what other people’s comfort level is. So if comparing ourselves to the five or fifty or five hundred people we really know was destined to make us unhappy, how much worse is it that we can now compare ourselves to 50,000 or 500,000 people?
Indeed, if we think of our neighbor as “someone we know a lot about” (which leads us to covet what they have), then our definition of “neighbor” has certainly changed over the centuries. But while that might be a negative (and Ariely argues that we should keep our “neighborhood” small to increase our happiness), there are other consequences to the fact that our definition of “neighbor” is now much broader.
An Ever-Expanding Neighborhood
We read not only about how rich other people are (leading us to want what they have), but also read about how challenging life is in other parts of the world — and even parts of our own country. Yet we certainly don’t compare ourselves to them when we consider our own happiness. So if we don’t use them as a point of comparison, do we still consider the homeless person on the street our “neighbor”? The person who doesn’t have health care? A Sudanese woman? Who truly is our “neighbor,” and what do we use to define who that is?
There are actually two other well-known commandments in the Torah that use the word “neighbor” – “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). What happens to those commandments if we view our “neighbor” more broadly?
If we think of our neighbors as people we have to try to keep up with, then that will just make us miserable. But if we think of our “neighbors” as those we have a responsibility to, then we can realize the value and importance of moving away from our self-centered materialism. As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, when it comes to societal and economic problems, “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, xxiv)
Our field of awareness about people has expanded from a small local circle to a large global world. But if our awareness has grown, then our responsibility has grown, as well. Too often, we compare ourselves to our “neighbors” who are better off than we are — making us unhappy. Instead, perhaps we should be focusing more on our obligations to our ”neighbors” who are not as well-off — and helping those neighbors will ultimately bring much more fulfillment, meaning, and even happiness into our life than an extra $10,000 ever could.