What’s in your wallet?

Home Editorials What’s in your wallet?

by Al Wahnon

The answer to that question is, let’s see, driver’s license and registration, a couple of credit cards, pieces of paper with random phone numbers and addresses, money and, oh, yes, a bunch of happiness. That last item is to satisfy an ancient conundrum: Does money buy happiness?

As a boy growing up in the Bronx, I wasn’t certain, but I did believe that if money didn’t buy happiness at least it allowed you to choose the type of misery you would endure. But when I thought more deeply about it, I realized I rarely, if ever, saw an unhappy rich person and, conversely, never saw a happy person living in poverty. That’s not a scientific approach, but when I developed that philosophy I was barely a C student in science.

The thought of equating money and happiness was sparked by a recent article recounting a study of 450,000 Americans that suggests there are two forms of happiness: day-to-day contentment and overall satisfaction with one’s place in the world.

The survey indicated that higher income brings little daily gratification, but it does boost one’s sense of self in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t think of happiness as a short-term emotion or an extended phase of life. I thought happiness was the goal of everyone on the planet and that you want to achieve it as soon as you can and hold it for as long as you can.

But this study of almost a half million people determined that there is a specific dollar number or income plateau after which more money has no measurable effect on day-to-day contentment. Happiness mounts but comes to a screeching halt, says the survey, when you hit the “magic” number—$75,000 a year.

As soon as you hit the magic number any added wealth merely increases material acquisitions but produces no apparent gain in happiness. I disagree with the concept that $75,000 is the panacea for misery and anything more than that is as useless as a knee-kicker on a ceramic floor. I believe if $75,000 completes the dream, then $150,000 will double the joy or at least add a smile or two on the way to the bank.

The one time this pie-in-the-sky philosophy has validity would be now, for the flooring retailer. The economy is depressed and business is less than robust, but he can ride it out with a healthy dose of contentment for a relatively small fee. Retailers who believe the road to happiness leads to a $75,000 cul-de-sac are fine for the present, but when business rebounds—and it will— those who waited at the end of the rainbow will be rewarded with a significant multiple of the entrance fee to the happiness derby.

This convoluted concept of money buying or resisting happiness is dramatically affected by location. That is, where is the $75K being earned and what are the circumstances that impact living in that happy zone? For example, $75,000 in New York will buy so much more in, say, South Dakota or Mississippi. Based on cost-of-living index values, the happiness salary would vary widely across the nation. The variances are stunning. New Yorkers would have to earn $163,000 a year to achieve the $75,000 happiness level; in Chicago $84,750. That’s according to Kiplinger.com. This does present an option: If you hit the happiness number, move to a lower maintenance state or get back to work and raise the ante so you can live the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

It comes down to the simple premise: We earn our happiness. We create our misery.

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