Since work is a big part of our lives, it makes sense that we talk about it a lot. And, unfortunately, this also gives rise to many myths. The tricky part about myths is that once they spread and enough people believe them, we begin to think that they are true. And I want to address some of the most common myths about happiness.
The myth that you need to earn a lot of money to enjoy your job and be happy is probably the most common one. It’s one that almost nobody disputes. And even though we are not all greedy and materialistic, we all believe in it more or less.
But the science is crystal clear about this topic – money does not bring you happiness. And if you live a decent life, earning or winning a million dollars will not make you much happier than you are now. But let’s look a little bit closer at what the science actually says about money.
Choose one: win the lottery or end up in a wheelchair 1
I would like to ask you a brilliant question. It’s a question that Daniel Gilbert asked his audience during a TED talk. It is a great question and that’s why I want to use it here: which situation will make you happier between winning the lottery and ending up in a wheelchair? Choose one…I bet that you will say something like this: “Are you crazy? Of course I would want to win the lottery. That would make me happy!” 1 And you are right, but you are also wrong.
You are right because winning the lottery will probably feel amazing! You will be really happy when you go and claim your prize. And over the next weeks or months you will continue to be happy. You will finally have the money to pay off your debts, you will get a big house, a new car, you will quite your shitty job and finally go on vacation on a private island. This is the dream life. And who would not be happy?
But you are also wrong because this “new-found happiness” will not last. As surely as winning the lottery will make you happy at first, your happiness will go away. After you get used to your new life, you will slowly adapt to it and end up just as happy as you were before. While your life has changed and some things have improved, you will be just as happy as before.
In the end, even if you win the lottery or end up in a wheelchair, a year later you will be just as happy as before! 1
I know that if you were given the choice, you would still prefer to win the lottery. So would I. And that’s alright. Just keep in mind that even winning millions of dollars will not make you happier.
Why does this happen?
I know that what I shared with you sounds a bit hard to believe. It’s alright to be skeptical and you shouldn’t take my word for it. So I will now explain why winning the lottery and ending up in a wheelchair has the same effect in time. The mechanism that is responsible for this proves that no amount of money will bring you ever-lasting happiness. Here’s why.
According to Sonja Lyubomirksy, a professor of psychology who did extensive research on happiness, we have a happiness set point.2 This means that we all have a certain happiness level we gravitate towards.
Let’s say that we measure happiness on a scale from 1 (we feel extreme unhappiness, despair or depression) to 10 (we feel very satisfied with our lives, we are cheerful and optimistic). Each of us usually experience a certain level of happiness. Some people are at 5.5, some at 7 and some at 9.
When something great happens to us, such as winning the lottery, our happiness level goes up. But after a while, we get used to the happy event or new condition and we go back to our normal happiness level (set point). 2
When something bad happens to us, such as being paralyzed or losing our legs, our happiness level goes down. We may feel hopeless and depressed, but in time we accept our new situation. We get used to this and we go back to our normal happiness level (set point). 2
Any new experience makes your happiness level rise or fall, but you will always go back to your happiness set point.
So anything great or terrible affects how happy you are, but only for a short while. Give it a few hours, days or weeks and you will inevitably go back to where you started.
This is great news if you ever do end up in a wheelchair. Knowing that you will eventually be as happy as you are right now will help you accept your fate more easily.
But it’s bad news if you win 300 million dollars and end up feeling the same. It definitely takes away from your enthusiasm, but it also makes you expectations more realistic, hence helping you avoid a big disappointment.
We always gravitate around the same happiness level just as the Earth always gravitates around the Sun. The Earth is sometimes pulled closer to it and sometimes pushed away, but in never escapes that orbit. It never collapses into the Sun or distance itself from the Sun so much as to leave this solar system. Instead, it follows the same path – just as our happiness level.
Running on a treadmill
As I said, every new and great experience makes you a bit happier – for a while. So trying to always chase a great goal or experience to be lastingly happy is like running on a treadmill. No matter how much and how fast you run, you are always in the same spot. Sonja Lyubomirsky talked about this effect and appropriately called it the hedonic treadmill. 2
This is one of the reasons why it really does not matter how much money you earn. Every raise will make you happy, but you’ll get used to it just as surely as the sun will rise again the next day. There are other studies that show the correlation between income and happiness stops once you afford to live in decent conditions. And other studies show that money and materialism can actually make you less happy. So after you manage to lift yourself above poverty level, do not expect an increase in money to lead to an increase in happiness since it usually does not happen.3
The myth that you need to earn a lot of money to be happy is one of the most popular myths that people believe in.
However, the science is clear on this matter. More money can only make you happier for a while. In time, you will get used to earning an extra $5,000 or $5 million.
What can you do?
So…now that you know this is a myth, what can you do? Here are a few suggestions:
- Accept that this is a myth, even if most people act like this is true.
- Learn more about these mechanisms and the reasons why money does not make us happy.
- Do not despair. Just because money won’t make you happier, this does not mean that you cannot be happier. There are few tricks to raise your happiness levels despite our happiness set points. It’s just that money is not one of them.
- Talk about this myth and the truth supported by research. Share the things you have learned in this article since more people should know the truth.
I honestly believe that we all deserve to be happier. But believing in myths will never make that happen. The problem with myths is that they keep us busy chasing the wrong things and we can’t become aware of the things that do matter for our happiness. Let’s explore some of these myths together and find better ways to pursue happiness!