The other day, I am thinking about this old, familiar topic: Money and Happiness. Naturally, the very common question arises: Can money buy happiness?
I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks em.
Dear anh Huy,
I am indeed honored by your decision to direct this question to me, a 19-year-old that thinks too much for his own good, and whose only experience with hard-earned money comes from his one-semester stint as a waiter in the university restaurant. (He has picked up various jobs ever since, from tutor, IT, to research assistant – jobs that line his pocket more but develop his character less.)
I am none but a person in the making, a puzzle in the solving, and a life in the living. Really, what do I have to say about happiness?
Do not trust me. Take every word of mine with relentless skepticism, because what is at stake is your happiness, your primary pursuit in life– don’t you let anyone meddle with it.
But enough with the caveats. I must be careful not to be so good with my admonitions that you will leave this instant. Without further ado, here is QA’s Q&A #4: Can Money buy Happiness?
For most people, the answer would seem to be yes.
The argument often comes in two veins. The first is proof by contradiction: If you did not have money for basic subsistence and amenities, you could not be happy. The second invokes the liberating effect of money: more cash means more control over your life. Compelling, isn’t it?
Yet equally compelling is the sudden pangs of anxiety that we suffer everyday. When we are upset, we long for happy days. When we are happy, we fear that it will not last. Telling ourselves repeatedly to not be so sad wouldn’t help. Chiding ourselves for being so dark wouldn’t lighten things up. These emotional crises would eventually disappear, as inexplicably as they emerged, but they would lurk behind every corner of our lives, ready to assault us in moments of vulnerability. We are completely at their mercy.
How do we make sense of this mess? Don’t I make twice the money I used to? Am I not promoted to the position I strove for? Maybe it’s not enough– yet. Maybe if only I could make a little more money, if only I could have a little nicer car, if only I could have a little bigger house. Then I would be happy.
And so people launch their lives in full force in pursuit of these “if only”. I have done that myself– so many times. In 8th grade, I thought that if only I could win the Chemistry Competition my life would be perfect. In 9th grade, I thought that if only I could get into Ams my life would be perfect (“thiên đường giải trí” was how us aspirant Amsers dubbed life after the entrance test). In high school, I thought that if only I could score 2000 SAT and get into a top 100 school, my life would be perfect.
I managed to fulfill every single one, and even more than that. Is my life perfect? Oh no. No one’s is. No one feels that his life is perfect. We always got some other “if only” to chase behind.
The problem with money is that it is nothing but another “if only”, another external thing in which (we keep hoping) lies true happiness, true happiness that is filled with content and barred from anxiety. After repeated failure with money and material goods, we may search for happiness in something subtler, like a meaningful job, or a perfect girlfriend. It is harder to dismiss these things. An increase in salary can be easily seen; thus its failure to make you happy is too blunt to equivocate. But a soul mate– how do you measure that? If a girl ends up disappointing you, it’s so much easier to label her as false positive and to shove her away in your dusty shelf of thought-to-be-true-loves. Thus most people keep leading their lives at this stage: disappointed with money, searching for some meaning of life, but never find anything that lasts.
Of course they cannot find anything that lasts, for there is nothing to be found. All of these things – from the crude (bonus, car, vacation) to the subtle (friends, lover, security) – they are all external to us. They are things in life, life that is essentially impermanent, life that has so little certainty. And yet we keep resisting this inexorable truth, and yet we keep running against the flow of inevitability, searching for more control even though it can’t be complete, clinging to ideals even though all else will fade away. We suffer because of this doggedness against life, only to be in favor of the self.
So no, I don’t think money can buy happiness. Neither can any other goals and desires, no matter how noble they may seem. Anxiety, our arch enemy, will keep stalking every step as long as we believe that there is happiness to be found in external and perishable things. Most people, after 50 years or so of living, realize that there is something wrong with such approach: the phenomenon is called the mid-life crisis (“Oh my God I only have half of my life left. What have I been doing with the first!?”). We can recreate the imminence of death faced by these people by seriously asking, “What if I died tomorrow?” Is there anything, anyone outside you that can make you feel OK about being done, gone, forgotten?
Well, you may wince and protest that this is such a dark outlook on life. Why think like this? But asking this question is like telling a depressed person: “Why be sad? Why can’t you be happy like I am?” It’s not solving the problem. Yet it is also crucial to realize that not everyone has the problem. Not everyone leaves his home to wander in the streets after learning that he got into Ams, perplexedly asking “Is this all there is?” Not everyone feels so down and void after watching a comedy and having a genuinely good laugh, heavily sighing “What now?”
Not everyone needs a solution. Many can be OK with going after one goal after another without much questioning.* If you are truly happy about whatever you are doing, be it getting rich or winning girls, just keep on doing it.
But then why do you ask this question in the first place?
* I once wish if only I could be like them- carefree and not so skeptical, my life would be perfect. We know how that one works out.
If we want to change ourselves we’ll have to first accept it as it is, for change out of love is improvement. Out of hate it is destruction.