In 1964, John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles sang
Tell me that you want those kind of things
that money just can’t buy.
For I don’t care too much for money
for money can’t buy me love.
Even though the idealism and antimaterialism of the 1960s was just sprouting in the psyche of America’s Vietnam era generation, few believed yet that they too did not care too much for Money. Coming as this did from what was became one of the richest musical groups in history, I remember this song being followed with a cynical quip from my father saying, “Well it might be true Money can’t buy you love, but it sure can rent it for a while.” Perhaps contributing to the paradoxical nature of the Beatles’ commentary on whether or not Money could make us happy was the fact that only a year earlier, in 1963, the Beatles had rerecorded “Money (That’s What I Want),” a 1959 hit single by Barrett Strong that was Motown’s first hit record. They made a new hit out of it on their own. In it they sang:
The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees
Your lovin’ gives me a thrill
But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills
Money don’t get everything it’s true
What it don’t get, I can’t use
Well now give me money
A lot of money
Wow, yeah, I wanna be free
Oh, I want money
That’s what I want
And they got it, but then lamented it could not buy them love. Ironically, this song later became the theme song for the movie Rogue Trader, about former derivatives broker Nick Leeson and the 1995 collapse of the Barings Bank. The filmmakers based it on Leeson’s 1996 book, Rogue Trader: How I Brought Down Barings Bank and Shook the Financial World. This is a true story about how a young man brought down one of England’s largest and oldest banks, simply because he was too embarrassed to tell the truth to his friends. He did not want to make them unhappy (while there was still time to save the bank) by telling them how it was all falling apart. In other words, he wanted to be liked and to be happy at any cost. His story forecast the Great Recession, in which similar reckless pursuits for happiness at any cost brought down numerous financial institutions.
The relationship between Money and happiness is a bit hard to study. Anyone can easily measure Money; all we have to do is count it. But there are no definitive units of happiness. We can quantify how many café lattes we can get for twenty dollars, but not how much happiness we can buy. Nevertheless, the emotion of happiness and the phenomena of Money are often linked in people’s minds.
What is true at one level of wealth is also not true at another. The relationship between wealth and happiness is not equally scalable at each level of wealth. It is not a linear or graduated scale. A poor person who doubles his or her annual income may become a member of the middle class, and happiness then expands along with the middle-class privileges of better food, medicine, shelter, and access to education and safer neighborhoods. Money can actually buy some happiness for the poor and lower middle classes. Without access to adequate housing, good nutrition, basic health care, transportation, and other necessities, most of us would suffer. At some point on the wealth acquisition scale, however, there is clearly a diminishing return between increasing Money and increased happiness. Money has a geometrically declining power as status grows on the economic scale, belying French philosopher Albert Camus’s comment, “It’s a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” The next blog will discuss links between economic class and happiness.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis is a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of the recent book: The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.