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Will Money Make You Happy?

Money and status can't protect someone from their own worst traits.

Are you working hard to earn a fat salary, but still feel that you're not able to enjoy the kind of lifestyle that the "truly rich" enjoy? While it seems that there's a new public shaming of a high-flying status star each week, our desire to be as wealthy as a Kennedy or a Getty doesn't seem to wane.

We equate money with happiness, even though a lot of famous and wealthy public figures are experiencing relational and well-being crisis events that we used to associate with people who made up the lower stratus in the earnings category. We've come to realize, though, that domestic violence, drug addiction, drunk driving, and physical altercations don't discriminate against the "rich and famous," yet many people still assume that money will buy them happiness and immunity from the worries that they have in the less affluent status they currently carry.

Are You a HENRY? (High Earner, Not Rich Yet)

As a country, it seems that we love to create names for groups of people—whether the name is based on birth year or parenthood status or income. You may be a Baby Boomer or a Gen Xer. You may be a DINK (dual income, no kids) or on the “mommy track.” Well, one of the newest pet names developed is for the HENRYs—you know, those people (maybe you and your friends) who are already High Earners, but, unfortunately, Not Rich Yet.

Unfortunately, high salaries no longer guarantee fat bank accounts. According to Equifax, HENRYs are folks who are under age 55, earn over $100,000 a year, but whose investable assets are less than $1 million. That’s the broadest definition, while others tend to focus on the younger high earners.

Once upon a time, a high income carried a lot of power along with it—back before the economic world shifted and production of luxury goods became such a booming industry that encouraged higher debt loads in order to acquire the symbols of status that we felt we deserved, but were not quite flush enough yet to purchase outright.

Once upon a time, well-paid professionals lived in nice houses in nice neighborhoods, drove nice cars, and played golf at the club. Their lives, though, weren’t so drastically different than their less affluent neighbors or clients. Today, there exists a new level of “income achievement” as we’ve seen technology and creativity fuel the development of start-ups and entrepreneurships that land even business moguls in their teenage years into the upper-income brackets in record time.

Getting financially ahead isn’t easy when status living is expected by your social network. When kids come out of college and are earning a brand new salary within spitting distance of $100K, a lot of people would imagine that the kids were overpaid and certainly able to start building healthy nest eggs. That’s because a lot of us don’t realize just how high some people’s student loans actually might be. And the ridiculous cost of apartment rent or housing in the cities where those fat salaries are often being paid can be a huge toll on disposable incomes as can the property taxes and income taxes that come with homes in nice neighborhoods and salaries in the nice bracket.

Does Money Buy Happiness?

Researchers often present diverse findings related to the connection between income and happiness. It’s not so much the level of income that directly determines your level of happiness, but rather the ways in which you are able to direct your income to purposes that are likely to bring you happiness and satisfaction. This means that it is the ability to afford the things that bring personal satisfaction that really matters. These “things” may, indeed, be “things,” but they may also include the ability to afford experiential purchases (vacations, green fees, surf lessons, whatever appeals to you), payment for services (lawn care, house cleaning, etc.) to provide you with more time to do what you prefer to do with your time, or even to engage in meaningful philanthropy.

Many people who earn less than the $100K marker actually feel “rich,” even though they are not exactly “high earners.” Dollars have a specific determined value in the economic world, but the emotional or practical desire for more of this commodity varies greatly across individuals.

Being “Well-Off” Doesn’t Mean “Wealthy” for Everyone

The highly visible conspicuous consumption of luxury lifestyles has been made so much more visible than in generations past. This can create a sense of entitlement and anger at the injustices in the world for those whose monthly salary wouldn’t buy a bottle of the champers that is being drunk like it was water (from the tap, not Kona Nigari Water, which costs around $400 a bottle).

Unfortunately, when we see what others have, it can make us want the same type of life because we falsely assume that the rich person’s life is qualitatively better than our own. We forget about the fact that having a wad of cash at the ready doesn’t mean that you’ll attract a more adoring partner or enjoy better friendships than you would in your “real life.” We forget that no matter how nice the mattress that you’re sleeping on or where that mattress is located, that you’ll still be facing your same self in the mirror in the morning. Money doesn’t change the texture of our identity, only the external circumstances, which never really matter in the “skinny” of life.

Money can’t protect you from illness, although it can increase your access to medical resources and treatments that are beyond the purse of the poor. However, money can also increase your ability to explore some vices that might raise chances of some pretty significant health issues.

Money won’t make you like yourself any more than you do if you’re poor—we are going to be who we are regardless of what we earn. And the friends that money buys are not the type of friends that are there because they like you—they’re often there because of what you earn, not what you bring to the relationship.

It’s a consistent finding that the only lifelong predictor of life satisfaction is having a strong support network. Having tons of money is great if you have strong social connections that are built on intangible and mutual affection with others. Scraping by from paycheck to paycheck may be your lot, but if you’re surrounded by people who think a lot of you and whose company you enjoy—friends or family—you’re going to be able to enjoy a strong level of life satisfaction, even if your purse is empty.

So, if you’re a HENRY who is bringing in the big bucks, but seeing those dollars fly out of your paycheck before they even hit the bank, don’t assume that you’ve got to amp up the cash to find the joy that you’d expected to find when the big salary was secured. Recognize that happiness comes from being able to spend time with the people you enjoy, more so than owning the things you crave or doing the things that are still a little beyond your financial reach.

How to Be Happy If You’re Rich or Poor

  1. Find your tribe, find your mate and "care for" and "care about" them all: Having people in your life makes the true difference in how much you’ll enjoy the daily grind of life.
  2. Relish the quest; don’t focus on the just the prize: Seriously, the saying that "anticipation is half the fun” is a truth. Humans are designed by nature to master challenges and engage in problem-solving behaviors. Once you have amassed all of the “prizes” or “toys” you’ve desired, there’s little joy that the stack of stuff will provide once you own it. We need to continue to generate and refine our goals—and take time to appreciate the period before achieving them as much as we appreciate the satisfaction of the hunt completed.
  3. Measure your happiness by the satisfaction you feel at the end of the day when you put your head down to sleep: Don’t get strung out on external markers that others try to convince you are the measures of success.
  4. Take care of your health: Practice health-promoting behaviors and avoid the activities and substances that contribute to illness and disease. Get enough exercise, make healthy food choices, and don’t invite or enable addictions to any substance or behavior.
More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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