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Money and Happiness

Giovanni Cucci, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Jan 29th 2020

 Money, symbol of happiness

One of the most deeply rooted symbols in people’s imagination today is the association between happiness and wealth with its many derivatives (consumerism, power and accumulation). Even when the dream is never realized, the conviction remains that it is the lesser evil. As Woody Allen says, “If money can’t make us happy, forget about poverty.”[1]

Nevertheless, throughout history we see how the unhindered pursuit of profit is the cause of humanity’s worst evils. Daniel Bell, in his cutting analysis of capitalist culture, shows the radical antithesis between the inclination toward personal profit, a fruit of the industrial mindset, and the decisions oriented toward the common good, which is indispensable for society. Such an irresolvable contradiction is the basis of ever worsening economic crises, among which the most blaring was that of 2008 when a very small number of the very rich became even richer at the expense of an always poorer multitude. But the worst thing is that these very few super-rich do not understand that they have opened an abyss into which they themselves risk falling.

Joseph Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001 after showing that a large part of the wealth in the USA is concentrated in the hands of one percent of the population, comments: “Those who are part of the first one percent have the most beautiful houses, the best education, the best doctors, and the most comfortable style of life, but there is one thing that money does not seem to have bought: the understanding that their destiny is tied to that of the other 99 percent of existence. As history shows, this is something that the first one percent will understand in the end. Often, however, they learn too late.”[2]

What interests us in this regard is, above all, to uncover the reason for which the association between riches and happiness is so resistant to every possible refutation, notwithstanding all the contrary evidence. Paraphrasing Descartes, one may affirm that if modern people have learned to doubt everything, they have never doubted the almighty dollar: this is the highest truth, a clear and distinct idea, a foundation stone of the edifice of Western societies.

But why is such an association so resistant to every possible denial?


Mimetic desire as source of action

Among the various possible hypotheses, especially interesting in this regard is the analysis of René Girard. Making use of the contributions of previous authors (Alexis de Tocqueville and Adam Smith), he has individuated the tendency to identify happy people with rich people in the mechanism of imitation (what he calls “mimetic desire”) and in the symbolic value of money, which is synonymous with security and social recognition.

The fashion and advertising phenomena come to mind: what they use for leverage, more than the need to survive, is the need to be appreciated and recognized. Those engaged in these fields are masters at arousing induced desires. These are not by chance the object of significant research and economic investment: by presenting the images of successful, attractive and respected people, advertising links such characteristics to a product, transmitting the message that the consumer can become like them. It is a subliminal message, not logical, but which in fact pushes us to possess things that we do not need – and which we do not even want – only because we see that others have them.

Parents know this mechanism well: one has only to think of the insistent demands of children who want something just because their friends or a television personality have one, just to immediately abandon it and long for something else or a newer model. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, these dynamics have become ever more powerful and invasive.

Adam Smith notes that the inclination toward the acquisition of goods is owed, more than to the desire to live a better life (a desire quickly disregarded), to our preoccupation with how others see us: “To what end is all the effort and exhaustion of this world directed? What is the goal of the greed and ambition, the search for well-being, the power, and the domination? Maybe to satisfy natural needs? […] They believe that their stomach is better off, or their sleep is deeper in a mansion rather than in a hut? The opposite has been observed so often, as everyone knows. So where does this emulation that crosses all the different ranks of humanity come from, and what are the advantages that we place before ourselves in the great purpose of human life which we call the improvement of our condition? To be seen, receive attention, to be sympathized with, to be satisfied, and approved of are all the advantages that come from it. What interests us is vanity, not well-being or pleasure.”[3]

The cost of mimeticism

The idea that happiness is associated with earning and always having more stuff brings an increase of stress and unhappiness, a dehumanization and loss of one’s dignity, because it generates the so-called “rat race.” The American entrepreneur Robert Kiyosaki, in order to describe this mechanism, uses the image of the mouse that runs on a wheel in a cage without ever arriving anywhere: the effort of those who aim at a level of well-being placed always just beyond what we have already attained points us in the same direction as the mouse. The more we earn the more we feel ourselves needy. This image also suggests the disturbing degradation to which the human being is finally reduced, until becoming nothing more than a trained guinea pig. Kiyosaki applies this image to an entire way of life imposed upon Western peoples by able speculators, beginning in the 1960s, and unthinkingly made their own by the people who find themselves at the end of their lives with the sensation that they have wasted their energy and have been robbed of their dreams.

However, the worst thing is that the wheel continues to turn, and the illusion is passed on to the following generation without even asking about the goodness of the promises and the effective costs of such a race: “They work for the owners of the company in which they are employed, for the taxes which sustain the state, to pay for their credit cards, and to pay off the mortgage with the bank. Meanwhile, they admonish their children ‘to study hard, get the best grades, and to find a permanent position somewhere.’ They do not learn anything about money, but they learn a lot about those who profit from their ingenuity, ending up working like slaves for their whole lives. The process is passed on to the following generation of ‘great workers.’ This is the Rat-race.”[4]

Mimeticism is a powerful mechanism that persuades and determines behavior. It also reveals, however, an empty interior, which is mostly unconscious, that one tries to fill with something that in reality one does not really want. When a person tends to focus on material goods, he or she does so at the expense of other goods, which come to be disregarded in this way, leaving an internal frustration, which one tries in turn to compensate for with other goods proposed by the market: dissatisfaction is a conspicuous source of profit. However, the end result is that one finds oneself quite far from attaining that which the products seemed to have promised. The accumulation of material goods – really, an attempt to confront one’s psychological insecurity – tends, in this way, to exacerbate that same sentiment of insecurity which it was meant to eliminate. Thus, the increase in the tendency to accumulate is inversely proportional to the quality of life and perceived sense of satisfaction. Unhappiness increases.

Solomon’s interval

No one denies the importance of material goods. However, sobriety is indispensable for enjoying them freely, just as with food. In the Bible, King Solomon asks the Lord the grace of having what is necessary, nothing more, nothing less, because in either of these extremes a danger to his quality of life lay hidden: “Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:7-9).

Studies completed on the subject have shown the efficacy of what is called “Solomon’s interval,” above all in its “upper” side, the limit above which happiness, instead of increasing, decreases, bringing with it sadness, desperation and death. As we have seen with regard to the “rat race,” it is shocking to calculate the amount of stress incurred in the search for wealth and its ramifications, not only on the quality of life but also on its length. It seems strange but the richest countries do not have a longer life expectancy than poor countries: in the USA, the average is lower than in European countries with small economies, like Greece, and the African-Americans of Harlem arrive less often at 65 years of age than the inhabitants of Bangladesh.[5]

The truth of “Solomon’s interval” is confirmed from one generation to the next. It has often been calculated, being updated in accordance with the cost of living. One of the most recent investigations, under the auspices of Purdue University (USA), quantifies it at between 45,000 and 77,000 euros per year. The authors studied 1.7 million individuals in 164 countries. Beyond that ceiling, the level of satisfaction does not increase, on the contrary, it tends to worsen.[6]

This does not refer only to money. Even those who have a sudden stroke of good luck, or an equally unexpected stroke of bad luck, manifest the same tendency to homeostasis, a constant, almost uniform way of dealing with life, present in the upper as well as in the lower classes of the population, in good as well as bad fortune. “The studies of people who have won the lottery or who have a particularly lucky day at the races, mirror what has been discovered to happen to accident victims: after a brief period of euphoria, they inevitably turn back, like a wave, to their point of departure, oscillating around what psychologists call the ‘point of equilibrium’ on the ‘thermostat of humor.’”[7]

Einstein observed that it is easier to divide the atom than to overcome prejudice. The identification of money with happiness is, in effect, a difficult concept to refute: blind faith in money, as Kiyosaki found, is passed on almost intact from father to son, feeding that which de Tocqueville had called “imagined inequality.” And, it is just this sense of inequality that influences one’s health in a more significant way than income, because it shapes one’s self-perception.

The British Medical Journal conducted intense research in the 1990s on the factors that influence the relation between goods and quality of life, including in terms of mortality. The conclusion of the research was published in an editorial in 1996 with the significant title “The Big Idea”: “The big idea is that what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society.”[8]

The most interesting aspect of the “big idea” is that it is the entire society that benefits, not just the poor, since inequality damages the health and the quality of life even of the richer part of the population, if for no other reason than that increasing disparity augments criminality and violence; from this, insecurity and stress grow, with the fear of finding oneself in a situation of constant danger.

Does everything have a price?

One of the most deleterious effects of this mentality is to hold that everything may be converted into money, that everything has a price, from ova to kidneys, people and leisure. But when this happens, quality of life tends to vanish, because it is irreducible to the “dictatorship of the GDP.”

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a teacher of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the question of the “limits of an object of trade” through an experiment. She sent to the 70 students of her course a message seeking the presence of a companion who was “beautiful, intelligent, expert masseuse, between 22 and 32 years of age.” Precise services were requested with a price list: “Receive guests at home ($40 per hour); sweet and sensual massages ($140 per hour); escort at social events ($40 per hour); travel together ($300 per day, plus expenses); take care of some domestic tasks like commissions and payment of bills ($30 per hour).”[9] The announcement explicitly excluded sexual propositions.

The reactions from the students were various, but one struck Hochschild in particular because it presents precisely the novelty of this approach to existence, the loss of sentiment, of that romantic and slightly simple-minded dimension that characterizes the one in love and remains one of the most beautiful and unrepeatable experiences of life: “The wonderful intertwining of love, with the two partners who take care of each other, love each other and are bound together spiritually, is reduced to a paid service, mechanized and without sentiment. Should we be surprised that there is so much hate in this graceless world?”[10] The increased possibility of having it all leaves an interior frustration, a disappointment, which is a sort of protest over something that has been stolen from us or disregarded, but that, at the same time, remains indispensable if we are to live well.

The iniquitous aspect of the commercialization of the good is not only the growth of inequality, forming a society in which the richest can permit themselves everything and the poor nothing, being limited to dreaming of that which the rich possess. The problem is that in both situations the good is corrupted in an irreversible way. The good has an essentially gratuitous character: in the moment in which it is monetized, it perishes. The most beautiful things do not have a price, even if they are for sale. The Divine Comedy or Hamlet have a cover price, but their value –the creativity and geniality expressed in those pages – can never be quantified. They are not reproducible, because beauty is not reducible to a technique, in the industrial sense.

Michael Sandel notes in a book with the significant title That Which Money Cannot Buy: “To assign a price to goods may destroy them. This is because markets do not only distribute goods: they also express and promote determinate orientations in the face of goods, the objects of exchange.”[11]

Fifty years ago the dream of a well-to-do person was to be able to acquire a beautiful home, a luxury automobile, or a family vacation in an exotic location. The pretentious modern permits himself to buy an entire family (in times and places to be established), to rent people to take care of his relatives in every possible circumstance (illnesses, birthdays, home visits). Any space whatever of ordinary life may be occupied by paid personnel, capable of undertaking tasks in the most efficient and qualified way. However, in this way, even the most intimate aspects of life are given into the hands of others: not just house cleaning, but even the family photos, the organization of a party, a family visit. It is enough to pay someone to do it in our stead.

Thus, people do not exist anymore, just services. And in this way, as the aforementioned students noted, money finishes by limiting the range of possible relationships: among them, it separates sexual acts and sentiment, eliminates the rules of affection, and the sharing of intimacy, bringing us to what Hochschild calls “the culture of coldness.”

When you seek to monetize a good, you lose it. To pay a child to read a book may encourage reading, but it robs them of the joy of reading, which is essentially gratuitous. Maybe a child will read more, but limiting herself to short and easy books to be finished as quickly as possible. She has lost the dynamic of motivation and desire. If a teacher knows how to share his passion with his students, they will learn much more than if they were constrained by coercion. It is not for this reason that the payoff does not come, but it is of a different kind. This is one of the motives for which play, applied to teaching, may motivate a child, at first incapable of paying attention to the subjects proposed in class, to apply themselves and to acquire a complex understanding.

The profit/loss polarity ends up by extending itself to all areas of life: to pay someone to wait in line for us, tattoo the body with publicity for various products, to sell blood, rent a uterus, sell sex acts. When the human being tends to become a product for sale, it loses its peculiar characteristics, to which it has access only gratuitously: creativity, affection, generosity, dedication, passion, altruism, intimacy, tenderness, sharing, everything that makes life human and beautiful. The same is true of volunteer work or care professions: in the moment in which they are paid, they inevitably suffer a drop in the quality of the relationship.

The commercialization of goods has another grave consequence: it makes people selfish and less disposed to give, with the result that goods, instead of being more available, in the end become more scarce. The world of the gratuitous is killed by this mentality, and the whole of society pays the price, finding itself deprived of essential services. It has been noted that a good, like the donation of blood, becomes more scarce from the moment in which one decides to pay for it: ceasing to be a gesture of solidarity, the satisfaction which it procured ceases. The civil virtues, which solidify the sense of national belonging, thus disappear: all is simply left to the logic of the market, which annuls the dignity of the donor and degrades the meaning of the gift, until it kills it.[12]

The first to understand this are the young. Hochschild understood the gravity of this way of thinking when her daughter discovered that her birthday party was in reality decorated by a person paid by her mother. The delusion on her face was more eloquent than any speech. As much as the organization was impeccable, it was artificial, heartless; in it, both the sentiments and the persons were lost: “‘In that moment, I knew I had gone beyond the limit’ […], the limit of having crossed the confines of what may be bought and sold marked out by her daughter […]: wives who are not mothers, mothers who are not wives, second wives and stepmothers.”[13] And, the limit is the willingness to lose time, lost altogether, with the persons we love. 

“There is more joy in giving than in receiving”

Reflecting on what renders us effectively happy forces us to contest some fundamental axioms of today’s society: wealth, individualism, the race for success, accumulation. The communal dimension of happiness negates its evaluation in terms of personal property or consumer goods. Paul Ricœur has reflected fully on this dimension, playing with the two-fold meaning of the word “recognize/recognition.” The highest level of the relation is strictly tied to the polarity gratuitous/gratitude. One may know the other, simply speaking, when one gratuitously recognizes the other as being other from oneself. This is fundamental for constructing the relationship. The category of the gift, not by accident, is born in this context; it can never be reduced to a commercial contract, to a do ut des [I give that you may give] in order to obtain alliances or to return favors received. Anyone who has reflected on the gratuitous has also noted that the gift is not synonymous with the absence of motivations: it is intimately connected with interest for the other. The peculiar character of the gift is that of revealing the possibility of a relationship irreducible to it, that which Alain Caillé calls “the third paradigm,” irreducible to what is materially exchanged between the donor and the recipient.[14]

 The relational and affective dimension is indispensable for happiness, precisely because it pertains to the category of the gratuitous, of the “priceless”[15]: when it tends to become commercialized, it is perverted, generating malaise.

Economic research has determined the association of money and happiness in the sense of the saying attributed to Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive!” (Acts 20:35). Research conducted by a team of the University of British Columbia (Canada) has shown that there does not exist any relation between money spent on ourselves and the joy of living. On the contrary, in the end one feels sadness. When, on the other hand, one buys something for others, one feels happier than before, and this independently from the profit perceived.

The researchers tried to test this difference, furnishing a sum of money (circa $5,000) to 16 employees, asking them how happy they felt (in a hypothetical “scale of happiness”) a month before receiving the sum and then one and two months after having spent it. Those who felt happier, not only with respect to the rest of the group but also with regard to the preceding period, were those who had used the money to make others happy. “The way in which the bonus was spent influenced the degree of happiness of those who received it to a greater degree than the size of the bonus.”[16] Not content, the authors of the study undertook the same investigation with 46 students, with the same results: the sum received, however modest (from $5 to $20), rendered its possessor happier when it was used for the needs of another.

Giving makes us happy. This is a fact seen in all cultures and societies.[17] Nevertheless, when one asks what happiness is associated with, the majority of people respond: when money is received and one spends it on oneself. These are two erroneous presuppositions, though they are present in each of us. For the researchers, this is a typical example of “cognitive distortion” or an automatic thought about the interpretation of reality. What is typically thought about happiness is the opposite to what happens in reality. A situation seen also with regard to the sense of justice, very clear on paper, but often forgotten in concrete circumstances, especially when one is subjected to social pressure.[18]

In reality, one is happy only when seeking to make others happy. To attain happiness, one requires above all an “intellectual conversion” about the criteria with which to read life. Giving to others makes us content, always: poor or rich, it makes no difference.

It happens, on the contrary, that the poor are more generous than the rich. Strange, but true: in the Gospel, generous gestures come from those who seem not to count at all, as in the passage of the forgiven sinner (cf. Luke 7:36-50); those who are rich are more reluctant to give, often they give the superfluous, unwillingly, and making it weigh heavy upon the receiver. Jesus, looking at the offerings thrown into the treasury of the temple, draws our attention to the fact that the only person able to make a free offering was a poor widow who gave all that she had to live on, literally “she gave her whole life” (Mark 12:44), differently from those around her. “It seems strange that the woman makes a gift of everything beginning precisely with her misery, from that limitation which might have been invoked as an excuse, as an unfair debt, to save herself from giving. The Gospel teaching moves in the opposite direction: only those who do not possess, who are truly poor, may give. Maybe this is the meaning of the evangelical beatitude of the poor in spirit […]. Only those who are poor, who do not pretend to possess and recognize with gratitude that which they receive, may truly give, or better, that person becomes a gift.”[19]


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 3, article 3, March. 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1903.3

[1] On this subject, cf. also G. Cucci, “Happiness, a delightful forestaste of eternity” in Civ. Catt. Eng. Ed. June  2017

[2] J. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, W.W. Norton 2012

Cf. T. Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Belknap Press, 2014; D. Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, New York, Basic Books, 1996, 237f.

[3] A. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments. Cf. R. Girard, Les origines de la culture. Entretiens avec Pierpaolo Antonello et João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2004, 9f.

[4] R. T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Goldmann TB, 2007

[5] Cf. C. McCord – H. P. Freeman, “Excess mortality in Harlem,” in The New England Journal of Medicine, No. 322, 1990, 173-177; P. Wickramaratne et al., “Age, period and cohort effects on the risk of major depression: results from
five United States communities,” in Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, No. 42, 1989, 333-343; P. M. Lewinsohn, “Age-cohort changes in the lifetime occurrence of depression and other mental disorders,” in Journal of Abnormal Psychology, No. 102, 1993, 110-120.

[6] Cf. A. T. Jebb – L. Tay – E. Diener – S. Oishi, “Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world,” in Nature Human Behavior, No. 2, January 2018, 33-38. Similar research has been done in the past: cf. R. Inglehart,
“Globalization and Postmodern Values,” in The Washington Quarterly, No. 23, 2000, 215-228; E. Diener – S. Oishi, “Money and happiness: Income and subjective well-being across nations,” in E. Diener – E. M. Suh (eds.), Culture and Subjective Well-Being, Cambridge (MA), The MIT Press, 2000, 185-218.

[7] D. McMahon, Happiness, a History, Grove Press, 2007, 513. Cf. M. E. P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness. Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, New York, Free Press, 2002, 47f; R. Layard, Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, 2nd ed., Penguin, 2011

[8] Editor’s choice, “The Big Idea,” in British Medical Journal, No. 312, April 20, 1996; cf. K. Pickett – R. G. Wilkinson.

[9] A. Russell Hochschild, Per amore o per denaro. La commercializzazione della vita intima, Bologna, il Mulino, 2006, 45.

[10] Ibid., 48.

[11] M. J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014

[12] Cf. R. M. Titmuss, The Gift Relationship. From Human Blood to Social Policy, New York, Pantheon, 1971, 223f; 270; 274; 277.

[13] A. Russell Hochschild, Per amore o per denaro…, op. cit., 55-58.

[14] “In the gift […] the fundamental fact is that the bond is more important than the goods. The gift is […] at the same time and paradoxically obligatory and free, interested and disinterested” (A. Caillé, Il terzo paradigma. Antropologia filosofica del dono, Turin, Boringhieri, 1998, 6f). For a deeper analysis of the subject, cf. G. Cucci, Altruismo e gratuità. I due polmoni della vita, Assisi (Pg), Cittadella, 2014, ch. IV-V.

[15] P. Ricœur, Percorsi del riconoscimento, Milan, Cortina, 2005, 272. Cf. G. Salvini, “Il malessere nella società del benessere,” in Civ. Catt. 2006 II 332-344.

[16] E. W. Dunn – L. B. Aknin – M. I. Norton, “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness,” in Science, No. 319, March 21, 2008, 1687f.

[17] Cf. L. B. Aknin et al. “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, No. 104, 2013, 635-652.

[18] Cf. G. Cucci – A. Monda, L’arazzo rovesciato. L’enigma del male, Assisi (Pg), Cittadella, 2010, 50-63.

[19] E. Parolari, “Debito buono e debito cattivo. La psicologia del dono,” in Tredimensioni 3 (2006) 42-44.

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