The Connection Between Money and Happiness

By Sharron R. Blezard, September 23, 2010

Lectionary Reflection for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

September 26, 2010

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 1 Timothy 6:6-8

How much money does one really need to be “happy”? Does money even equate to happiness? According to the results of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, the answer is yes…to a point. Angus Deaton, an economist at the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton University, and Daniel Kahneman found that indeed happiness does rise as income rises. The breaking point at which the happiness effect appears to level out is $75,000, according to Deaton. “Giving people more income beyond 75K is not going to do much for their daily mood…but it is going to make them feel they have a better life,” Deaton was also quoted as saying.

I honestly can’t tell you from personal experience whether this is true because I have never earned $75,000 in any one year. Despite this fact, I don’t feel bereft or even mildly unhappy. Sure, making the income and outgo balance can be a challenge, but I have a roof over my head, a car to drive, food to eat, and work I enjoy. I have a great group of family and friends, a supportive faith community, and the gift of more than enough education. Why shouldn’t I be happy? I am wealthy in so many ways!

According to these figures, I should be less than half as happy as I currently am, or I could be more than twice as happy as I feel. Good grief! I was feeling pretty good about life until I read this study. Actually, I’m still in fine fettle because I believe that a critical component is missing from this study. I’ll say more about that later.

How about you? If you are preparing to preach or teach on this week’s lectionary texts, the connection between money and happiness is bound to come up. Look at the rich man in Luke’s gospel: he had everything and ended up without so much as a drop of water to quench his unbearable thirst. The beggar, Lazarus, who longed for the rich man’s refuse, ended up being comforted by Abraham himself. In Luke’s world the chasm between the haves and the have-nots is huge. Is it really any different in our present age? I think not; in fact, I think our access to media and cheap goods has probably made it even more difficult to cross.

We face a daunting task this week in proclamation and teaching. Some in our congregations and classes are struggling to stay afloat in brackish economic waters. Others may have felt the twinge of plummeting pensions and investments but are still sitting on fairly firm ground. Still others may possess an abundance of financial wealth and worldly possessions. How these texts are heard by the single mother with nothing left on her EBT card for the rest of the month and the parishioner who hopes your sermon will be short so the family can make brunch at the country club is probably quite different. Shame, guilt, anger, boredom, concern, apathy—those emotions will be hovering in the pews and chairs right along with the faithful.

Here are a few suggestions for approaching the money/happiness connection.

1) Take a look at the etymology of the word itself. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word came into use in the mid 14th century from the middle English word hap, meaning “chance” or “fortune,” by way of the Old Norse happ, meaning “chance” or “good luck.” It seems to me that relying on “chance” is a rather risky proposition.

2) Go to and see where you fall on the scale of the entire world population. Challenge your parishioners to do the same. I’m in the richest 10% of the world’s population, yet according to the Well-being Index I have a long way to go to achieve optimum happiness. Go figure!

3) Take a good, long look at Paul’s words to Timothy this week. Consider the word contentment. Paul’s idea of contentment involves food and clothes. I don’t think he would include iPods, new cars, designer clothes, and McMansions were he writing this letter today. Explore what it means to be content. Perhaps the key lies in a realignment of how we think about wealth and its uses.

4) Lay hands on a copy of the book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.

5) Don’t berate folks for having money or for not giving generously enough to the church. Help them to see how money can be used as an incredible force for good. Encourage them to see their giftedness and embrace all that God wants them to be and do, to transform their relationship with money. For those who struggle with not having enough money, encourage them, too. Consider having those with financial acumen mentor and guide individuals and families who seem unable to be good stewards of their resources.

6) Turn the lens on yourself unflinchingly and be willing to admit your foibles and failures. None of us is perfect, and there is much of value in sharing our stories and life experiences. I’ve made more than my share of money mishaps, but I am learning from my mistakes, and I have learned how to be content.

Oh, I did say that I thought something was missing from the Well-being Index. That something is an examination of faith on one’s relationship to money and happiness. If we are able to help people see that placing God at the center of all that they do and who they are, then money becomes what it is meant to be—a neutral tool. No longer do we use it to try and buy happiness or fill the hole in our hearts. Yep, my vote is for a Contentment Index. How much money does it take for one to be content? Maybe, if one is truly content, the question is not even applicable.

Blessings on your proclamation and teaching this week!

Photos by Aart van Bezooyen, Andrew Magill, Tracy O, and Giovanni Orlando, used under a Creative Commons License. Thanks!

About the Author

The Rev. Sharron Riessinger Blezard is an ELCA pastor currently rostered in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. She came to ordained ministry after teaching secondary and college English, working in non-profit management and public relations, and moonlighting as a freelance writer. See more posts by .

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