Money is a tricky thing. On one hand, it can provide food, education, and a comfortable home. Obviously, if you don’t have food in your fridge or a roof over your head, finding happiness can be rough. On the other hand, once people’s basic needs are met, more money doesn’t really equal more happiness.
The secret to enabling money to buy happiness doesn’t lie in having more or less money. It’s all about how you use the money you have.
Making Your Money Work for You…and Others!
The Zen perspective on money is that it’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is. We give it meaning. This means money can, in fact, bring you more happiness, but not if it corrupts you or makes you greedy and selfish. You should control your money, not the other way around.
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Although many religions and various children’s books have long taught that giving is the source of true joy, science is now also supporting those teachings. Research suggests that spending money on a friend, rather than on yourself, increases happiness. It also shows that giving money away, even if you’re forced to, stimulates the part of the brain associated with receiving a reward, which contributes to feeling good.
It’s Not in the Numbers
Knowing this, you might assume that the more money you give away or spend on others, the happier you’ll be. In fact, the dollar amount is not a factor. A three-part study conducted by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton found that spending $5 on a friend feels just as good as spending $20.
However, how closely the giver interacts with the receiver does impact the level of happiness. This leads me to think that the real benefit of spending money on others is the connection it provides. We are communal animals; even the strongest introvert needs to feel connected to other people, so using money as a means to connect and help others naturally makes you feel good.
This applies to the rich and the not-so-rich alike. If you think about your own circle of family and friends, there are probably people who tend to be really happy, others who are average on the happiness scale, and those who tend to be grumpy and pessimistic. The same can be said for people in rich countries and people in developing countries.
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When tested, even people living in poorer conditions improved their happiness by sharing what little money or food they had with others. And Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, understands that his most important possession is not material in nature; it’s a wide and diverse set of lifelong friends.
So the question is not, “How much money will make me happy?” Rather, you should ask, “How can I use my money in a way that will increase my happiness?” You will find the answer to that question involves helping others find happiness first.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Prioritizing giving in your life may not be a new concept or practice, but if you’re looking for new ways to make your money add to your happiness, keep reading.
If you don’t have a lot of money to give away, simply find a small amount in your budget to put toward direct giving. That means you directly interact with the receiver.
Most of us can find a few dollars a month to take a friend out for coffee. You may only be saving the other person two dollars, but the gesture is simple and genuine, and the fact that you want to spend that time together means something.
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Run Your Own Non-Profit
If you can find as much as $30 a month, get a stack of one-dollar bills to carry around with you. Throughout the month, look for small, meaningful ways to use that money for others.
That can mean leaving a bigger tip, putting quarters into a stranger’s parking meter, buying used books to donate to the library, or picking up a small gift or card for someone going through a rough time.
If there’s one big cause you’re passionate about, consider what my Buddhist teacher told me: everyone should run his own personal nonprofit.
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Maybe you don’t file a 501(c)(3) and host fundraisers, but that can be a good thing. I once volunteered for an event that raised money to fight cancer, but after a few years, the organization had to raise $6 million to be able to donate just $1 million directly to the cause.
As an organization of one, you get to declare yourself the executive director and call all the shots! But more importantly, you’re on the front lines, interacting with the people who benefit from your efforts. You are able to place your care and attention where it should be: on people.
Maybe you can’t purchase a jar of happiness to take home and have with dinner. But you can buy a cup of coffee for a friend, and the cup you drink with her might as well be liquid happiness; it will undoubtedly bring joy to your heart — no matter the cost.
Stephan Wiedner is a certified life coach and founder of Noomii.com, the largest directory of independent life and business coaches. He is also the editor of the Un-Self-Help Blog, a popular resource for research-based self-help that works.
Featured image by JD Hancock