The Frontal Cortex

Money and Happiness

Drake Bennett has an interesting and nuanced article in the Boston Globe Ideas section on money and happiness. To make a long story short, money can buy us some happiness, but only if we spend our money properly. Instead of buying things, we should buy memories:

A few researchers are looking again at whether happiness can be bought, and they are discovering that quite possibly it can – it’s just that some strategies are a lot better than others. Taking a friend to lunch, it turns out, makes us happier than buying a new outfit. Splurging on a vacation makes us happy in a way that splurging on a car may not.

“Just because money doesn’t buy happiness doesn’t mean money cannot buy happiness,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. “People just might be using it wrong.”

Dunn and others are beginning to offer an intriguing explanation for the poor wealth-to-happiness exchange rate: The problem isn’t money, it’s us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.

Any attempt to put these findings into practice, however, has to contend with the subtle but powerful ways money itself channels our thinking, and the ways it plays on human attitudes about sharing and scarcity. Recent studies have suggested that merely thinking about money makes us more solitary and selfish, and steers us away from the spending that promises to make us happiest.

Why don’t things make us happy? The answer, I think, has to do with a fundamental feature of neurons: habituation. When sensory cells are exposed to the same stimulus over and over again, they quickly get bored and stop firing. (That, for instance, is why you don’t feel your underwear.) This makes sense: the brain is an efficient organ, most interested in the novel and new. If we paid attention to everything, we’d quickly be overwhelmed by the intensity of reality. Unfortunately, the same logic applies to material objects. When you buy a shiny new Rolex watch, that watch might make you happy for a few days, or maybe even a week. Before long, however, that expensive piece of jewelery becomes just another shiny metal object – your pleasure neurons have habituated to the luxury good. (Of course, your Rolex can become a problem for everybody else, since it raises the material expectations of all those poor souls wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. [Such luxury items are known as “positional goods,” since part of their appeal is that they signal your social position.] Multiply this same psychological phenomenon across a full range of consumer products – from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes – and you can begin to see the “hedonic treadmill” that afflicts people in developed countries. Not only do their brain cells automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expensive expectations. Of course, not everybody can afford a Rolex or a Lexus, which means that we are constantly being disappointed.)

That, in a nutshell, is why material possessions don’t make us happy. As Bennett points out, however, investing in pleasant experiences is a much better alternative:

Money spent on experiences – vacations or theater tickets or meals out – makes you happier than money spent on material goods. Leaf Van Boven, an associate psychology professor at the University of Colorado, and Thomas Gilovich, chair of the psychology department at Cornell University, have run surveys asking people about past purchases and how happy they made them.

“We generally found very consistent evidence that experiences made people happier than material possessions they had invested in,” says Van Boven.

Why? For one thing, Van Boven and Gilovich argue, experiences are inherently more social – when we vacation or eat out or go to the movies it’s usually with other people, and we’re liable also to relive the experience when we see those people again. And past experiences can work as a sort of social adhesive even with people who didn’t participate with us, providing stories and conversational fodder in a way that a new watch or speedboat rarely can.

In addition, other work by Van Boven suggests that experiences don’t usually trigger the same sort of pernicious comparisons that material possessions do. We like our car less whenever we catch a glimpse of our neighbor’s newer, nicer car, but we don’t like our honeymoon any less because our neighbor went on a fancier one.

Another virtue of experiences is that, while material things get diminished over time (we habituate to the pleasure, and then have to deal with the inevitable repairs), pleasant memories tend to become more pleasant. We forget about the delayed flights and jet lag but remember the lush rainforest hike, or the fancy meal in Paris. The vacation might be long gone but it’s still making us happy.

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    August 27, 2009

    Money buys vacations.

  2. #2 Thomas Schroeder
    August 27, 2009

    Habituation seems like the right explanation.

    I once learned of a survey in which people from all salary ranges were asked how much money they’d need to make to be happy. The answer, across the board, was twice the amount the person was currently being paid (e.g. those making $50k wanted $100, those making $1M wanted $2M). This ties in with our material desires and possessions, as the bar is forever raised such that more is never enough.

    With a shift in how people use money to help them find happiness (i.e. away from material possessions and more towards forming good memories), money indeed might help them find true happiness more often. It has the added benefit of helping others find more happiness too (e.g. the person being treated to lunch, to use the earlier example). These actions would ultimately fees interactions, being together, and working together as opposed to material possessions, selfishness, and loneliness. This sure sounds good to me…

  3. #3 mardona
    August 27, 2009

    Material objects don’t bring us lasting happiness? I beg to differ. Take, for instance, that old ’62 silver Porsche I once owned that had a bit of fleck in the paint so that it seem to glimmer. I don’t think there was one time in the seven years I owned it when walking to it or when I was driving I didn’t swoon. And I’m a girl. We’re not even suppose to think of cars that way.

  4. #4 Determinista
    August 27, 2009

    Our neurons may get tired of wearing the same expensive watch or driving the same expensive shiny car, but our neurons will never get tired of the reaction of others in the presence of these status symbols. After all, money spent on material possessions can be considered money spent on experiences that would not have taken place if not for those possessions. The most obvious example is the relation between wealth and the number of potential mates.

    The fact that the novelty may wear off does not mean we would be as happy if these possessions disappeared all of a sudden.

  5. #5 Sean
    August 27, 2009

    Jonah,
    You are usually on point, but this is amazing!! Not only are the studies intriguing, but your psychological conceptualization behind them is perfect! I can’t wait share with my clients and students! Cheers!

    Oh to respond to #3 (Mardona): some things are sooo reinforcing, on multiple levels, that they will never habituate. I also think that your Porsche, although material, has given you a plethora of amazing experiences/memories. I am the same way with my favorite sushi knife (extremely expensive). Although I get the “kid on Christmas morning feeling” every time I use it, I am sure that much of this is linked to all the experiences that said knife has helped create.

  6. #6 just doug
    August 27, 2009

    There is also the opportunity cost of any purchase – the instant you decide to spend money on something the option of spending on every other possible thing is gone in an instant. It’s the death of your dreams in a [hopefully small] way, naturally not all that pleasant an experience – in the case of material goods made worse by the future garage sale inventory you did buy hanging around to remind you of it.

  7. #7 Anand Teke
    August 28, 2009

    The study and the post are definitely very intriguing. I can relate to number of experiences, good and not so good, I had in the past.

    I can also relate to why a job demanding me to work, however interesting it is, for 12 hours a day and 6 days a week cant make me happy even though I earn considerable money through it? I think such a job leaves me very little time to have experiences which will make me happy. I always knew that time for myself and my dear ones is what is lacking in my life but after reading the above post I have a better understanding of what exactly is going on.

  8. #8 gwern
    August 28, 2009

    Thomas: there’s a old saying you might want to keep in mind – the plural of anecdote is not data. One datum does not disprove a statistical generalization like the ones this post describes.

  9. #9 Jeff Potter
    August 28, 2009

    Jonah,

    Fascinating research, thanks for covering it. Do you know if any experimental validation has been done to support this? I worry that the existing survey-based data might be picking up correlation, not causality.

    -Jeff

  10. #10 Fertanish
    August 28, 2009

    I’d also add that, with material possessions, ultimately comes the need to deal with the item. Automobiles degrade and require maintenance, a chore some people enjoy, but most do not. Large houses required a large amount of maintenance. Small items like electronics fail or quickly become outdated. Even smaller items like books, CDs, DVDs, etc. take up massive amounts of space requiring organization, sorting, and disposal (can you tell I’m in the middle of a massive house-cleaning exercise?).

    All of these things take time and (more) money to support. Unless you have an endless supply of both, which most people do not, then any happy purchase ultimately carries some level of burden with it. If you do have an endless supply of time and money then, well, maybe you are happy, but chances are there is still an attachment or lingering impermanence causing a problem.

    Then, of course, there is the the desire to maintain the standard of living, which creates tension when factors challenge that…growing families, threat of job loss, etc.

    I’m all for the consumable purchases – days out, travel, etc. My media attachment gets the best of me at times, but I’ve done a decent job of cutting back on frivolous purchases over the past few years. But with so much media and advertising bombardment selling happiness in tangible items, it is hard to break out of the trend.

  11. #11 David
    August 28, 2009

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  12. #12 cgs
    August 28, 2009

    Adding to the post above: You own your stuff, but never forget that your stuff also owns you. Whenever making a major purchase, consider the time you now must commit to maintaining/operating/repairing said purchase.

  13. #13 Debra Cortese
    August 28, 2009

    “… if you could have only one: the feeling of having a new convertible, but NOT the car… or have the new convertible, but NOT the joyful feeling, which would you choose?”
    – somewhat paraphrased from Abraham’s daily quotes. (Abraham-Hicks)

  14. #14 Eva
    August 28, 2009

    Obviously, those people have never had an iPhone.

  15. #15 someone
    August 28, 2009

    I find it very interesting that buying vacations can be more valuable than buying “stuff.” I tend to think that “stuff” last much longer, and are thus a better “investment.” However, I agree that the limiting factor, for most people in the U.S., is time, rather than money, and I agree that what I once thought was “throwing money away” into a vacation, could actually be money well spent.

  16. #16 Bryan
    August 28, 2009

    Who ever said money can’t buy you happiness had obviously never heard of puppies.

  17. #17 g saenz
    August 28, 2009

    I have always known this. I took all the vacation time I could afford rather early in life. No one can take our memories away and beautiful ones they are.

    When I decided to become responsible, I lost my way somewhat.

    Thanks for writing this article. It reminded me of what is important in life.

  18. #18 sps
    August 28, 2009

    I would offer that possessions that facilitate experiences or are needed for certain hobbies or goals are also money well spent. For example, the Timex watch (that replaced the old lost one) that helps me time my running makes my running more enjoyable because it is more clearly tied to my goals. The rock climbing shoes allow me to pursue that sport and connect with a friend through it. The panniers and fenders I bought for my bike make my daily commute much more enjoyable.

    I guess my problem with money is that my interests are so numerous and divergent, it’s hard to prioritize which things to pursue.

    Another idea: experiences can also be commodified and turned into social positioning items in a highly developed society. I see this among my highly educated peers – we don’t talk about the new car we bought (since some of us dont’ have own a car by choice), but people do talk about their recent trip to Siberia or even their post-college peace corps work in ways that denote social status.

  19. #19 replica watches
    August 29, 2009

    I am 18 years old when my father sent me a watch, and now five years later, I still use it, although too bad, but I still like it, maintenance is not bad

  20. #20 royniles
    August 29, 2009

    So what’s the point here – a variation on the silly theme that money can’t buy happiness? Or the truism that acquiring money in and of itself won’t make you happy?
    How about the reality that the withholding of money as a means to obtain the quality of life that makes one minimally happy is a sure way to “buy” unhappiness for a larger and larger chunk of humanity. A “quality” that would seem to always have its material aspects.

  21. #21 oyun
    August 30, 2009

    Who ever said money can’t buy you happiness had obviously never heard of puppies.

  22. #22 Phillip Mummah B120
    August 30, 2009

    It is so interesting to think that just thinking about money can make me more selfish. I have always agreed with what Dunn said about how it matters what you buy and how you think for money to make you happy. IF people just go around constantly buying things that they think will make them happy like the best house and best car they are just decreasing how much joy they get from other things. Also they will just never be satisfied. The trick i think is to not spend money on things that you think you want just because you have the money but spend it on the things you know you can think about forever and have fun with. An item such as a better friendship because now you can go spend more time with them and less time just even thinking about money. The trick is to learn how to be perfectly satisfied with the things already in your life or spending money on non-material items and only spending money on toys for special occasions. Otherwise you will be getting constantly board of all the new cool-for-one-week items causing you to buy new material expensive (watches) all the time!

  23. #23 Size
    August 30, 2009

    Hmm, what about books? While books are, undeniably, material objects, I would argue that a good book is also an experience. Or am I just trying to justify the way that I spend all my money on books?

  24. #24 sld B120
    August 30, 2009

    I am surprised to say that I completely agree with the first paragraph where it says that taking a friend out to lunch will make us feel better than buying a new outfit. To spend money or do a good thing for someone beside yourself gives you an overall feeling of relief. Not the kind of relief that one gets from getting something off of their shoulders, but relief in a way that they did something good for someone else. I believe that doing something good/buying something for another person causes you to have a feeling of being very content with yourself. I do think that money can buy happiness, but as the article said, only if it used in the correct way. Buying yourself the next new thing will not make you happy for very long. By doing that, you will have a feeling of happiness for a short amount of time. Money needs to be spent on things that will boost your happiness for good reasons.

  25. #25 David
    August 30, 2009

    Jonah:

    Let me pose a question to you in another way–why should money and material possessions makes us “feel” happy?
    The notion that buying things will bring us happiness is a myth, IMO.

  26. #26 Eva
    August 31, 2009

    This post is very interesting. It reminds me of an article with a similar idea….

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/07/magazine/the-futile-pursuit-of-happiness.html

  27. #27 Zack
    September 1, 2009

    It all depends on context. If you never buy yourselp an outfit and are always taking people out to lunch, making the purchase will make you happier. Most lasting happiness and satisfaction comes from doing what you don’t want to do. Low level happiness usually comes from taking the path of least resistence. I know if I shut down this computer and go to bed I will be happier with myself. But will I?

  28. #28 Nick
    September 3, 2009

    Hi Jonah,

    interesting thoughts!

    I believe that it’s not possible to make a general statement on whether money makes people more or less happy. Money comes with a whole set of new elements that may have good or bad impact on our happiness, and depending on how susceptible we are to every one of them, the conclusion will go one way or the other (i.e. different from person to person).

    I recently made an effort to provide a more comprehensive picture of what these ad- and disadvantages are. I invite you to have a look at http://www.spreadinghappiness.org/2009/08/money-how-much-should-we-strive-for-it-to-become-happy/ and tell me what you think!

    Thank you,

    Nick

  29. #29 Ray Ingles
    September 3, 2009

    For our anniversary this year, I arranged time off from her bakery, and childcare, then suprised my wife with a four-day cruise. And then, for her birthday, I arranged a weekend for her to go away with her sisters; I’ll stay home and watch the kids.

    I’ve had no less than four other women tell me I should talk to their husbands. Apparently this is a winning formula. Dunno what the heck I’ll do for xmas…

  30. #30 DLG
    September 3, 2009

    It is all too common to associate money and wealth as one and the same. Having money certainly contributes to feeling wealthy, but true wealth is a combination of factors — of having the luxury of time, of having friends and family to share with, a satisfaction that is derived from utilizing your talents, ability to savor and appreciate the wisdom one has gained over time and a healthy mind and body. Take away one of these and the feeling of happiness becomes quite ephermal despite having money. Wonder why all the bright and talented researchers do not explore wealth & happiness in all its complexity. Visit my blog on more of my thoughts on money. http://gvfinancial.wordpress.com. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  31. #31 jb
    September 5, 2009

    Unfortunately our rosy memories also erode over time as the default mode network and other brain parts deteriorate in old age. My aunt who took great pleasure in travelling when younger can’t remember how many times she went to Europe or the countries she visited even with the visual prompt of the many photographs she took on her 40-50 trips. The only durable happiness is that that you find within yourself and whose expression naturally overflows into care for others via one’s talents. The one thing that still gives my aunt pleasure is helping others at the assisted living place that is now her home. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has researched this and written a book called Authentic Happiness. I read about his Happiness 101 course in the NYTimes Sunday magazine; you can now take the course online.

  32. #32 STO.B120
    September 6, 2009

    “Just because money doesn’t buy happiness doesn’t mean money cannot buy happiness.” This is the statement that’s been overlooked many times in many ways. People always argue the fact that “money can’t buy happiness” and “happiness can’t be bought through gifts.” However, I feel that Dunn is right: money doesn’t buy happiness directly, no. But, spent in the right way, the happiness money can buy is unlimited.

    I have personally experienced both of these. I have realized that buying something that is new, expensive, and “cool” does not make me as happy as spending money on a one time event, such as a vacation, the movies, concerts, or sporting events. The latter can be experienced with friends, and, as explained, relived forever with others. However, buying the newest gadget, spending a ton of money on new clothes, or having a really expensive and nice car only keeps one happy for a short while.

    I can honestly say that I would rather spend $100 on a night of fun with friends and/or family that I can talk about for years to come than on a new set of kicks or the newest video game that will only keep me happy and entertained for a few weeks. Money, although powerful, does not get you everything in life. For the rest, you need friends, family, and good times to relive forever.

  33. #33 kalb120
    September 6, 2009

    I believe that this article makes a good amount of sense. I have always believed that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it helps. I have never really thought about where that money was going to though. It’s true, from my own experiences, that money indirectly makes me happier. I don’t have much scientific intel to back it up since I’m only 17 but i know that I enjoy traveling more than anything else, and i could not do so with out the luxury of money.
    I read Jonah Lehrer’s novel, How We Decide for a class and loved it. Neuroscience interests me very much and the book has gotten me thinking about how i make decisions in my own life. One major decision we all make is how to spend our money. As a 17 year old-senior in high school- I do not have much money to spend but I do have a job and I do have bills and I try to save my money as much as possible. When I go out with my friends it drives me crazy when they buy random stuff that they know they don’t need, such as every color nike high tops to match every outfit in their wardrobes; I just don’t see how that’s so amusing. I’d rather spend my money on a weekend in the mountains snowboarding and skiing or a day trip to the beach with the waves and the summer stance, because those moments that can’t be bought but you need money to do-the priceless experiences that empty your wallet. I believe that those memories are happiness but again, I’m not the scientist, I’m the statistic.

  34. #34 denny lau
    September 7, 2009

    Material possessions can provide social experiences in addition to higher social status. In the example of a Rolex watch, the owner of a Rolex watch can discuss the distinguishing features of the watch and compare the mechanics to other watches. The owner has better stories that he can weave around a Rolex watch than a Timex watch, thus helping him engage with others socially. The watch helps him connect with other Rolex owners because they see themselves as having a common interest. But Timex watch owners don’t really connect with other Timex watch owners because there is not the same emotional investment in a Timex watch.

    Material possessions that are of scarcity help to create conversations thus providing the owners with social experiences. Scarce materials tend to cost lots of money. Therefore, money can help buy material possessions which then can help enrich one’s social experiences which then makes them happier.

    Think wine, prius-es, harley davidson’s, vacation homes, …

  35. #35 Dan Graney B120
    September 8, 2009

    This post made sense to me. I’ve always observed money as a sort of means to an end. An intermediary step between (in general) some service we do and an object or service we receive. For this reason, I’ve always been more attracted to a barter system, but that’s beside the point.

    I find that the majority of my money funds my hobbies, photography for example. The act of taking and developing photographs is what I enjoy. Not that actual purchase of a lens or photo paper. So sure, without money it would be near impossible to support this activity, and if you want to generalize and overlook most details then yes, money is necessary for happiness in this case.

    However, money is not the provider of happiness.

  36. #36 madz
    September 8, 2009

    Money can be used to sustain your happiness, I mean of course you can use money to spend on things that would give you quality time with your love ones (the real source of happiness). But money won’t be your very source of happiness.

  37. #37 JSCB120
    September 8, 2009

    Money can indeed make you happy, but it’s not the only thing that can make you happy. If you are spending your money on something that you enjoy, you are going to be happy. I disagree with parts of the blog, for example, saying that buying a Lexus wont keep you happy. Maybe for some people that enjoy driving, or like a specific type of car, the Lexus will keep them happy. I do agree with the memory part though, i would personally rather spend my money on a trip or an activity that can be enjoyed both while participating in it and while looking back on it.

  38. #38 Blake
    September 10, 2009

    great article. really makes you think twice about what you splurge on.

  39. #39 The Positive People
    September 20, 2009

    Money is great to buy the things that can give you the feeling of Happiness…but are you getting enough sleep? A study from the University of Michigan concluded that “making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night”

    =) so be happy get some sleep! – thomas http://www.thepositivepeople.com – we are experts in happiness!

  40. #40 bland satisfaction
    December 1, 2009

    Its like indulging on products or food that gives you satisfaction. Say for example you have the money to buy your favorate chocolate icecream. You keep eating it everyday and it no longer taste the same intensity compared to when you first taste it for the first time in one year. So what is the solution. The solution is not buying the more expensive chocolate icecream with expensive cocoa beans. Its simply to not overindulge and stop eating it for a while. The same goes with sex, vacations, sleep, material possessions or pursuit of physical or mental challenges. Only when the person know what it means to taste bitterness and sadness and then tasted something pleasant, he/she will enjoy the object that gives you pleasant experiences the most. But if you keep endulging in them you are like drinking water. Even with the pursuit of mental and physical challenges after one suceeds in one goal, they keep trying to go higher. It is important to stop and reflect on the pros and cons otherwise your health will be ruined.
    That is why there are successful people who by the time they reach middle age start doing charitable work full time, spending vacations in poor countries, helping the poor and elderly and wanting to experience living in the poor and difficult conditions. They feel that helping other gives them a sense of purpose. They start asking themselves. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why am I me and not you? What IS the right thing to do? There is really no right or wrong. Everything is a state of mind.

  41. #41 Nick1254367
    December 1, 2009

    Hi,

    interesting thoughts!

    I believe it’s not possible to make a general statement on whether money makes people more or less happy. Money comes with a whole set of new elements that may have good or bad impact on our happiness, and depending on how susceptible we are to every one of them, the conclusion will go one way or the other (i.e. different from person to person).

    I recently made an effort to provide a more comprehensive picture of what these ad- and disadvantages are. I invite you to have a look at Money and Happiness and tell me what you think!

    Thank you,

    Nick

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    The solution is not buying the more expensive chocolate icecream with expensive cocoa beans. Its simply to not overindulge and stop eating it for a while. The same goes with sex, vacations, sleep, material possessions or pursuit of physical or mental challenges. Only when the person know what it means to taste bitterness and sadness and then tasted something pleasant, he/she will enjoy the object that gives you pleasant experiences the most. But if you keep endulging in them you are like drinking water.

  43. #43 wedding dresses
    January 20, 2010

    The same goes with sex, vacations, sleep, material possessions or pursuit of physical or mental challenges. Only when the person know what it means to taste bitterness and sadness and then tasted something pleasant, he/she will enjoy the object that gives you pleasant experiences the most. But if you keep endulging in them you are like drinking water. Even with the pursuit of mental and physical challenges after one suceeds in one goal, they keep trying to go higher. It is important to stop and reflect on the pros and cons otherwise your health will be ruined.

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  46. #46 jefferson faudan
    February 24, 2010

    people tend to strive harder to a better status positioning not only due to economical needs, social status and pride…
    we may also consider that a person can never say how unimportant a thing is not until he/she is able to get it…until then, he/she will be wondering how it is to be driving a sedan over a cheaper box type car, an expensive designer shirt over a similarly designed off the rack goodwill shirt and many more…as the wanting of these expensive things becomes stronger as you leverage in life, the moment you get to experience those wanting puts off the value that you once gave to the envy of all these material things…

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    Say for example you have the money to buy your favorate chocolate icecream. You keep eating it everyday and it no longer taste the same intensity compared to when you first taste it for the first time in one year. So what is the solution.

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    March 12, 2010

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    The majority of people rated their lives as satisfactory or more than satisfactory. Not all people who were considered ‘poor’ experienced low life satisfaction and not all people who were not considered ‘poor’ were happy with their lives.

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  54. #54 Gertrud Mar
    August 17, 2010

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  55. #55 Term Life Rates
    September 19, 2010

    Money may not buy happiness, but neither does having none! Either way, it seems like your happiness stems from other external factors!

  56. #56 Arbab Jehangeer
    September 22, 2010

    happiness is not a materialistic thing. it’s a feeling it’s self satisfaction thats why its not possible to buy it. just we have to feel it.

  57. #57 lily
    October 19, 2010

    I don’t think that money is something that helps to be happy because there are people that they have a lot of money and the live so sad.

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  61. #61 Maxse
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