[QA’s Q&A] #4: Can Money buy Happiness?

Hi em,
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.

– Huy

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.

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7 comments
  1. Thanks for your insightful response with detailed examples and criticism. This question originates from a very basic & impulsive musing of humankind and the main protagonist of the contemplation is no one but me…(Sorry for this little-humble intro)

    Why I ponder this question and choose no one but you to see your thinking?

    It is not a test of maturity, or so, but since this question has endlessly occupied minds of generations, during prior time, our time, and your time, it is desirable to see how differences in individuals can result in discrepancies in understanding and perceiving the commons. The basics are to deal with Money (Tangible Material) & Happiness (Intangible Asset). The exchange should be logically irrelevant since Happiness could be priceless, while money could state values itself. I am no better than you in identifying such unbalanced equation.

    I have well-conversed with certain kinds of people whose perceptions could be divided into 02 kinds: Pragmatic & laissez faire. The pragmatic go with “Sorry, if you don’t have money, please don’t think of a happy marriage/family or whatever. You must be realistic then”. The laissez faire deals with inexplicable acceptance towards favorable feelings “Hey, I know happiness could motivate us to do anything in our life. So money should not be a matter” The contradictory views lay down a simple question: Which one should we choose? It is right/wrong if I advocate one and dismiss the other? Or how to balance between the two?

    I should not go further to justify any decisions for making a choice, but from your post, I could see how you, as a typical young person (assumingly) (albeit me a bit older. Lmao), think about the discussion. My curiosity seemed satisfactory at the moment, but yet I will be back.

    • anhqle said:

      Well, I think it is wrong to advocate either way. Even though the pragmatic argument has some truth, it cannot be extended to claim that “the more money you have the happier you are.”

      But even the second approach, the pursuit of pleasurable feelings– why does it not work? Because we’re chasing desires and ideals again. Instead of saying “If only I could have a bigger house”, we now say “If only I could be happy.” But it is just as foolish to anchor our life to the things that make us happy (meaningful jobs, perfect spouse), because even they are impermanent and unreliable. Only life itself is truly reliable. You can’t be sure that your spouse won’t change, or that your job won’t disappear, but you can always be certain that life will be what it is– even if it is a life in which your spouse and your job desert you, it is still what it is. That’s the one thing you can rely on.

      P/S: and I don’t think we can safely assume that the thoughts here are of a typical young person. I’m just a tiny bit worried that if you carry such belief into social conversations with youngsters, you would be deemed embarrassingly out of touch 😛 Ain’t gonna pick up any young babes that way 😀

  2. Maybe later said:

    Hi QA,

    First thing first, I’m a big fan ever since watching you on “Mat troi ti hon” 10 years ago. I still remember one of the questions Lai Bac Hai Dang asked us during audition was “Who would you save first, your sister or your mother, if both were kidnapped”. Yet my memory fails me when it comes to your answer, so would you mind filling me in? May be QA’s Q&A #5?

    Second, you remind me of my good old Theories of Reality and Knowledge professor: “Happiness won’t come when you consider life temporary”, which may be in line with your disapproval of “if only” and your sentiment toward inevitably impermanent things in life.

    I have a small problem with your reasoning though. You appear to use “perfection” and “happiness” interchangeably while in fact I don’t think they have much to do with each other. “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.“. That’s irrelevant; were you happy?

    If the answer is yes, doesn’t fulfilling “if only” bring you happiness at least to some extent? I believe you intent to differentiate between extrinsic happiness and intrinsic (true) happiness, but it’s unclear to me how the latter is superior at least from your argument. If negating your premise built upon “perfection”, I could still picture a person chasing after another “if only” while being happy with previous accomplishments, or purchases, and thinking a great deal (haven’t met one though :D)

    What I’m saying is that happiness through your lens seems like all or nothing; either you have it or you don’t. Do you truly think so? Do you think instead of asking whether money could buy happiness, we should ask how much of happiness can money buy? I’m really curious on how you would respond to these questions.

    Best,

    • anhqle said:

      Hi bạn,

      I’m sorry for shattering your childhood memory here :), but perhaps I cannot give you an answer for the kidnap scenario. I can easily imagine, however, that back then I was able to utter something clever–I got plenty of those tricks from books and witty anecdotes. But right here, in the comfort of my place and with the candor of a friend, at least I can admit that I often don’t know, that deep down I am but a heartful of confusion. It is as if my soul were put on fast forward: as a kid, I felt I knew so much and was so sure of myself like a swaggering 20-something; and yet now, like a weathered man, I am quick to point out that I know so little and that I am certain about even less. (The QA’s Q&A idea is cute though :D.)

      About your second question, yes, when I said “perfect” I meant “happy” (I use the familiar “my life is perfect” expression simply for literary effect.) And consequently, yes, when I said my life turned out to be not perfect after each of those achievements, I did mean that I was dejected, void, and constantly assaulted by the question: “Is this all there is to it?” Weird, I know. Perhaps it is unfathomable to you, and to many, how I can fail to appreciate the happiness of accomplishment, which, however transitory, is happiness after all. Perhaps it is puzzling why I always crave the absolute and the permanent and why I cannot simply accept and enjoy pleasures while they last (why I either have it or I don’t, in your own words.)

      It is puzzling indeed. But why I feel that way does not matter as much as the fact that I do feel that way. As I said, not everyone needs a solution, because not everyone has the problem. In effect, as you perceptively point out, I am not arguing that intrinsic happiness is universally superior than extrinsic happiness. The entry, therefore, does not aim to lecture, but share. Not to convert the infidel, but to sympathize with the like-minded. If during the course of your life, (one that, I dearly wish, fills with pleasure and success) you still halt and wonder for one moment about purpose and meaning: “Is this all there is? Is it all?”, then this entry will be at your service.

      The truth is I am not always vulnerable to pangs of confusion as such. Most of the times I am still working towards the “external things”, the GPA, the good salary that would buy the fancy dinners, the occasional concert, and a secure life for my family (I need “only” that much :D) Indeed, most of the times I do only care about “how much of happiness can money buy.” But those thoughts about the futility of “if only” and the impermanence of “external things” would visit from times to times (lurking behind every corner, as I said), and they are like the missing spaces in a jigsaw puzzle, or the black blot on a white paper. The more near-complete, the more pure my happiness is, the more jarring those thoughts, those gaps, those imperfections are to me.

      That’s why I know I need to do something about it. Perhaps you know you don’t need to change anything about your life. Either way is great, as long as we really do understand ourselves, as long as we don’t trick ourselves into thinking our life is good as it is by shoving problems and inklings out of sight. Indeed, didn’t Buddha say something about cheating yourself is greatest sin? 🙂

      P/S: Are you Nghia? (I’m guessing from your email :D) Were we on the TV show together? My mom still keeps a tape of that show and my trophy at home. All I remember though is the roller-coaster ride in Bach Thao, and the cute hi-tech buzzers that we used on the show lolz. I was such a fat kid back then too haha–perhaps it’s because I wasn’t thinking too hard lulz.

  3. Maybe later said:

    No, I was not on the show. As a fan, I watched you on it :D, but we did share a few good times in NTC elementary school. I still remember there were two kids from your class, you and Nguyên Phương, versus twenty from mine skipping regular lessons to attend the so-called “doi tuyen”. Good time, indeed ^ ^

    And I really appreciate your lengthy explanation. As you said, why do you feel that way does not matter nearly as much as the fact that you do feel that way; hence my question was tailored as a Yes/No rather than a Why. I would have been equally happy if you had simply said “Yes” (or “No”). I do, however, have a follow up question, sincerely hoping that I am not by any means abusing the purpose of this Q&A.

    “If during the course of your life, (one that, I dearly wish, fills with pleasure and success) you still halt and wonder for one moment about purpose and meaning: “Is this all there is? Is it all?”, then this entry will be at your service.” — Do you have any insight for people who pause more than just “one moment”? People who pause maybe a little too long for their own good? By extension, what would you do to balance between the pause and the pursuit while getting at a pure happiness?

    Thanks.

    • anhqle said:

      That is actually a great question that I have been avoiding to answer time and again. To be honest, I have risen out of the crisis that at the time seemed never-ending. I have found, not yet a solution or a resting place, but a pathway in life that I think at least makes sense.

      I am reluctant to write about it though, because I know my explanation will be inadequate. It may sound uncooperative or even high-handed, but my own experience in seeking peace convinces me that knowledge can be shared, but wisdom can’t. We gotta live it to know it.

      Having said that, I would seriously give it a try as soon as I feel qualified (and as soon as I’m through with two papers, 1 research, and 1 proposal, too lolz)– which may be quite a while. But your question will be ever present on my mind.

      And I’m glad to talk to an old friend. I am genuinely and presently surprised that we turned out to be that close back in the days 😀 (I am still not sure who you are though–what a shame :D)

  4. Maybe later said:

    If by “that close” you mean sitting together in the same classroom for two hours every week 10 years ago then sure, blame yourself for your bad memory 😀 I have forgotten most of the kids back in those days too, but you stood out for your performance on that T.V. show.

    Per your answer, I’m satisfied. Perhaps I’ll check back after a while then.

    Cheers, (and good luck with the papers 😉 )

    P/s: I really hate this theme. Although it looks elegant, you need to specify a featured image to fill the void at the top of your homepage. What a pain!

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