Murphy\’s Bye-Laws

Law #4: Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it. –H.D. Thoreau

Can Gross Generalizations Buy Us Happiness?

Posted by PintofStout on August 13, 2007

Everyday we’re bombarded with statements that are approximations of the facts.  There are political polls and generalizations that say Americans are unhappy with their government because 75% of the (at most) couple thousand citizens asked picked similarly among the restricted choices offered.  There are phrases that lump complete strangers together by skin tone, spiritual proclivity, or inventory of sexual organs.  Granted, generalizations like these are useful for categorization based on facts, especially while trying to find a mate, but to associate tendencies prevalent among such categorizations to individuals is clearly overshooting.  The most frequent (maybe) occurrence of over-generalizing comes with clichéd phrases.

The one phrase that comes to mind, and the reason for this post, is “money can’t buy you happiness.”  We’ve all heard it said and probably nodded agreement while imaging just the occasions where it would possibly be true and neglecting all other possible circumstances.  It comes to mind because a fellow blogger is weighing job offers where a value must be assigned to some tangibles that aren’t money and some intangibles.  The first thing that came to my mind was this very saying.  After some thought, the asterisk was put into place.

The asterisk is necessary, rather than a complete revision, because it is true that money alone may not always buy happiness, but sometimes money and the right places to spend it will.  I would also footnote the word money to explain that money is simply a store of subjective value, and if someone could give out an IOU of happiness, it could actually be considered money; therefore, money can not only buy happiness but it can actually be happiness.

What the conundrum comes down to is subjective value of intangibles, such as freedom, opportunity, and security.  Money in and of itself will provide none of this; it is only ink and fancy paper (or some combination of ones and zeros on a magnetic disk somewhere).  But when someone who has something that one values and they, in turn, value some quantity of this paper, one can acquire things they value, which inevitably makes them happy or the trade wouldn’t be made.  Even those intangibles mentioned previously require things to be acquired.  It could be freedom from debt or worry regarding finances, or security from uncertainty.

Things like time-off, benefits, advancement opportunity, general atmosphere in a work environment, and other things one may value can be considered money, a.k.a. something of value.  Since these qualities are subjective and would vary among individuals it’s hard to quantify the value like some material object, such as cash.  Still, the concept that money is a store of value and things of value make us happy leads to the fact that money is, in fact, happiness (if only in potential).

Just walking around with a pocket full of money isn’t likely to make someone happy, unless they possess a not-so-rare fetish for the stuff; so in that context the clichéd phrase is probably right.  But that giant blanket statement misses so many occasions where money is a gateway to happiness, or indeed, potential happiness waiting to be unleashed.

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6 Responses to “Can Gross Generalizations Buy Us Happiness?”

  1. Bugaboo said

    I think you may be confusing happiness with distraction. or perhaps the cliche should be reworded as “money can’t buy you meaning”.

  2. Who are we to decide what is a distraction and what is of value? The Subjective Theory of Value would say only the person considering the trade can determine this.

    You may be onto something with the rephrasing, though. There are several things that money can’t buy (directly). For instance you can’t go to Wal-Mart and purchase Sam’s Choice Peace of Mind (made in China) or a package of meaning. But, one may be able to purchase something to bring peace of mind, such as insurance or a firearm. Likewise meaning may be acquired with study from books and instruction (which need purchased most of the time) to aid in self-reflection.

  3. thesofine said

    Dude. I agree with your statement that “Money can buy happiness.*”

    It brings to mind a psychology study I read while taking the course in college. It asked people what salary would make them happy. They were given a number of choices (the ones you mentioned), but most people said they would be happy if they made twice their current salary (regardless of baseline salary).

  4. Bugaboo said

    I think that study would actually support the statement that money CAN’T buy happiness. It shows that not matter how much money someone makes, they think that they would need to double their earnings to be happy. So the person making $20K a year thinks $40K would make him happy, while the person actually making $40K is miserable and hoping for $80K.

  5. Dang, I think Bugaboo may be right. That was a fine point.

    I never meant for this to be a serious discussion of any depth. I was trying to write light and be kind of funny since I’ve been so brooding and serious the last several months. But, I guess I’ll just flow with the tide here.

    So what does bring happiness? Is it negative freedom? How about having lots of stuff or no stuff? Maybe happiness comes with having nothing and therefore having nothing to worry about. Maybe happiness is having everything and therefore needing for nothing. I would wager (if I had anything to wager) that the answer depends on the individual. I’m pretty sure there are happy billionaires, and I’m also pretty sure there are some unhappy, downright miserable people living in desolation. The example can likely go the other way, too.

    The point I was attempting to make, besides a laugh or chuckle or two, was that the saying in question was dishonest and a gross generalization. Sure, the things you can purchase with money that would make you happy are probably fleeting, but so is most of life (except herpes). It is a constant struggle for survival, meaning, love, and happiness. To disregard the importance of some wealth or means of acquisition is tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

  6. thesofine said

    Your point hits on one of our greatest tyrant’s, I mean president’s, belief that all individuals have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (modifying of John Locke’s life, liberty, and estate & the First Continental Congress’ life, liberty, and property).

    Jefferson felt that an individual did not have an inalienable right to own property, but each individual has a right to pursue happiness? WTF!! How do you define or quantify happiness? Can I demand the government allow me more opportunities to pursue happiness, or say that the government itself is infringing on my pursuit of happiness and therefore should be dissolved??

    Jefferson’s tripartite motto is interpretable inanity. Frankly, I feel that the majority of Jefferson’s writing is unimaginative bordering on plagiarism, but that’s for another blog entry.

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