The headline of a recent MSN Money article was “7 Smart Ways to Buy Happiness.”  It’s odd to talk about happiness as something that can be bought; it makes it seem tangible like a car or a computer.   MP Dunleavey, the article’s author and an MSN Money Contributing Editor, isn’t talking about frequenting a happiness vendor, though, but about spending money to foster (mostly intangible) things that are likely to result in increased life satisfaction.   Much of what Dunleavey writes here is influenced by research findings from psychology and economics.  Dunleavey has written a book titled Money Can Buy Happiness, which seems to be a more extensive consideration of the topics considered in the article. 

Happiness for sale?

Happiness for sale?

Here’s Dunleavey’s list of the seven ways of spending money to increase happiness, with a brief explanation for each item:

  • Relationships–since those who have strong relationships tend to be happier, Dunleavey suggests you spend money on things that will connect you to others, such as buying a plane ticket to go visit a close friend.
  • Time–make extra time for yourself by paying others to do unappealing tasks or negotiating extra time off at work.
  • Health–buy better but pricier food, a gym membership, and the like.
  • Learning–buy books, DVDs, and experiences that will teach you something; in a broader sense, invest in activities that will create a challenge and lead to a sense of flow.
  • Debt Relief–rid yourself of one burden by paying down your bills. 
  • Givaways–donate money or time to enhance the welfare of others, since doing so makes you happier as well.
  • Security–start saving money for retirement, providing you with a greater sense of control over your life.

Though I think it’s fine to do all the things on the list, I find it rather peculiar that the reason given for doing all of them is to increase personal happiness.  Shouldn’t we get out of debt and save for the future because it’s fiscally responsible and will benefit us in the long term, not because we’ll feel better if we do so?  Aren’t strong relationships valuable for their own sake, not just because they increase our life satisfaction?  And what about giving to others just to make oneself feel good?  There is a debate between social psychologists who believe that all help given to others is meant to benefit the self and social psychologists who think that sometimes helping is solely intended to benefit the recipient. Even for someone taking the former view, though, Dunleavey seems particularly interested in what can be gained by the helper.  She writes:

Studies show that altruism not only tickles the feel-good centers in the brain, but it also creates a sense of social bonding and mutual support that enhances your personal well-being.

Can’t we help others because we genuinely care about their welfare, not because generosity will “tickle” our “feel-good centers?”  I hope that, during those too-infrequent times when I offer assistance to someone else, I do it at least in part out of concern, not hedonic calculation.