- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

Here’s a myth: money makes us happy. This was one myth John Stossel investigated on “20/20” a few weeks ago. He interviewed Jean Chatsky, a columnist for Money magazine, who conducted an interesting poll.

Miss Chatsky found money makes folks happier only if their family income is below $30,000 a year. Once a family’s income exceeds $50,000 — once it meets basic material needs — more money doesn’t equate to more happiness.

We all dream of being rich or winning the lotto, but an excess of dough doesn’t drive an excess of happiness. One woman who won the lotto told Mr. Stossel she was very happy for a spell, but the thrill wore off. Mr. Stossel also cited a survey of 49 of the world’s richest folks. The mega rich aren’t a whit happier than any of us.

Mr. Stossel’s report got me to thinking about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which I studied in college. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the most basic needs — the need for shelter, the need to eat.

As soon as we meet these needs, we long for slightly more. We long for safety and security. We want to sleep in a secure home at night and know we have a job to go to in the morning.

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, most of the neighbors had good jobs and that was enough for them. They didn’t care if the work was interesting or even rewarding. If a job provided security for their family, it was a good job.

When we attain such security, we begin to focus on higher human needs. We focus on the need for love and belonging, for friends, romance and eventually a family. We are social beings, after all, and need each other to laugh and love and enjoy life.

And as that need is attained, we seek to fulfill the next need: for esteem. Maslow described this as the need for respect and recognition. The need to do work that matters, and the need to be recognized for it.

When all these core needs are met, we are poised to attain the highest level of human fulfillment: self-actualization, the granddaddy of them all.

“A musician must make music, the artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself,” writes Mr. Maslow. “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”

I didn’t realize, until I saw Mr. Stossel’s report and began to restudy Maslow’s hierarchy, how lucky I am where human happiness is concerned. There are plenty of improvements I can make in this life, to be sure, but I’m beginning to dabble my toes in the self-actualization pool.

There have been many periods in my years of self-employment when I was barely able to meet the most basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, but in recent years I’ve been blessed. I earn more than I need, particularly since I moved back to Pittsburgh.

Last year, I was able to do part-time corporate work so I could spend more time researching and writing about subjects I love (one fiction book and one nonfiction). I was able to allow my income to drop about 40 percent over the previous years, but it was one of the happiest years I’ve ever had.

Mr. Stossel concludes true happiness is brought by such oldies but goodies as marriage, family, friends, religion. A recent Gallup study showed, in fact, married people are significantly happier than singles, and religious people are significantly happier than the nonreligious.

And what we do and how we do it are far more important than how much we are paid to do it. For many of the most rewarding things we do, we aren’t paid at all.

So it is a myth that money makes us happy.


Columnist. His e-mail address is [email protected]; his Web address is www.TomPurcell.com.

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