A student asked John Baylor if money can buy happiness. These are her questions and his responses.
Can money buy happiness? Why or why not?
Money can buy freedom—the freedom to fully pursue passions, to start a business, to get instruction for a hobby, to help a friend in need. Money also allows self-sufficiency, which fuels confidence. But money cannot acquire happiness because happiness is not part of a transaction available for purchase. Happiness is a state of mind and largely the product of purpose and meaningful relationships—a happy marriage, a loving family, genuine friends, supportive co-workers. Money doesn’t have much to do with fostering meaningful, happiness-inducing relationships. Kindness, serving others, hand-written notes, and compassion make a difference.
Why do you think people believe that money can buy happiness?
Too many people have fallen prey to materialism, often envying what they do not have rather than relishing what they do. This materialism produces so much stuff in our lives. Storage has become a lucrative industry. The average American rolls over $5,700 monthly in credit card debt.
But many adults are realizing that little happiness comes from stuff. My family and many others follow the KonMari Method for simplifying, organizing, and storing. Everybody wins when we give away what we do not need.
Money helps. It creates freedom. But beyond the worthy goal of financial self-sufficiency, we are more likely to find happiness from meaningful relationships and purpose than more wealth and possessions.
Does happiness correlate with money?
The correlation between money and happiness is due to the freedom that money allows. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, for example, unable to easily quit an unpleasant job or overcome a medical challenge can create stress. However, once we have enough money to provide the basics for ourselves and the ones we love, we can pursue the deeper passions that lead to genuine joy. From my experience, very few purchases trigger sustained happiness.
The amount needed to provide for ourselves and the ones we love is less than we think. My sister retired at age 58 and lives on about $1200 a month. She is one of the happiest people I know. As a Canadian, she doesn’t pay for health insurance, but she also lives simply, eats well, and only spends on what she values: her sons, home-cooked food, travel. The entire FIRE movement— Financial Independence and Retiring Early— is based on spending less, on living intentionally rather than frivolously, on finding meaning in behavior rather than material goods.
Plus, having little money can be a great motivator— it certainly was for me in my teens, twenties, and thirties.
Knowing that you speak to students across the state, what do you want them to see about their future?
I try to show students that the world is more demanding than ever, that AI and low-cost global labor create competition beyond what their parents experienced as young adults. But don’t get scared—get prepared; seize the skills and knowledge needed to compete against automation and outsourcing. The proven pathways to skills and knowledge are two- or four-year college degrees with minimal debt or certification in a trade—each likely fostering skills, knowledge, and financial freedom.
But I also urge students to develop grit, impulse control, and a passion. There are many nursing home inhabitants who never found a guiding passion. So challenge yourself; pursue interests until you’ve found that productive passion that makes hard work enjoyable, that makes materialism less tempting, that makes tomorrow exciting. Even without a college degree with minimal debt, a focused purpose should foster a strong work ethic that can lead to success in the face of these strengthening sources of competition. My friend’s son loves planes and is now in a trade school to become an airplane mechanic. He has never been so motivated or happy. If your work ethic matches your dreams, everything is possible.
Why do you think our culture equates money with happiness, and how can we cause a shift in this viewpoint?
Money is a means, not an end. It facilitates freedom. Those who choose to be mercenaries, choosing a career for its pay rather than its joy, often eventually harbor envy for those pursuing their productive passion. Screens have made many of us bored observers. Minimizing frivolous use of screens will help us rethink money and what really matters. Some of my favorite times involve long walks and talks with my children. No one needs a wallet to take a walk.
Is there anything that I haven’t asked or that you are willing to share information about?
My five siblings and I suffered much from our parents’ divorce, so I know first-hand the impact of relationships—we all do. Relationships and purpose are the pillars of human happiness. Leaving our phones in the car, regulating our screen time, making meals together, and finding our passionate purpose in life are a few of many strategies in the human quest for deeper relationships and happiness. And most of these strategies save or have very little to do with money.