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25/05/2018 16:35 BST | Updated 25/05/2018 16:35 BST

Can Money Really Not Buy Happiness? It’s More Complicated Than That

Maybe it’s true that money doesn’t make you happy - but doing without can make you distinctly unhappy

RossHelen via Getty Images

It’s often said that money can’t buy happiness. In fairness, you regularly see millionaires and billionaires in the news and media these days, and they rarely seem happy or content.

On the other hand, many argue these clichés exist make us feel better about the unfairness of life in a capitalist society. At best it’s a form of denial; sure, I don’t earn much, but I don’t want to, because money doesn’t make you happy. At worst, it’s a line of thinking actively promoted by the wealthy, much like someone warning a starving person about the preservatives in food while they force down an 11th slice of pizza.

What’s the truth of the matter, though? In terms of how the brain works, does money make us happy, or not?

As ever, it’s a bit of both. Evidence suggests the relationship between money and happiness (or wellbeing, or whatever) is curvilinear; that is, the more money we get, the happier we are, but only up to a point. Beyond this point, it takes ever-increasing sums of money to achieve ever-diminishing increases in personal happiness. This would help explain why the richest people in society so often seem hell-bent on accumulating more wealth. But, why?

You give a rat or pigeon money, they’ll perceive it as nothing but some shiny discs or bits of paper (or incomprehensible lights on a screen, if it’s an electronic transaction). But we humans, we have brains that can recognise the intrinsic importance of money. We’re still living organisms with biological needs, like food, water, shelter from dangers etc. Things that provide these are often labelled ‘biologically significant’, and when we obtain/experience them it often triggers the mesolimbic reward pathway, that part of the brain that recognises when something good or beneficial has happened and causes a pleasure response.

We humans don’t go out and obtain these things directly, though. Not anymore. Now we buy them. With money. Hence working for money is termed “earning a living”. And our brains recognise that, when we obtain money, we have greater access to all of our basic needs, or even non-essentials that we obtain pleasure from, and so financial reward seems to cause activity in the reward pathway.

Basically, our brains grasp that the more money you have, the less danger you are in overall, the more assured your survival, and this triggers reward responses and quiets the stress-causing threat detection mechanisms.

However, you may get to a point when you have enough money to make any threats/dangers to you or your family largely negligible. People will differ on where this point is though; one study shows that people who are preoccupied with money are far less likely to be happy than those who aren’t, even if the former have far more money overall.

But regardless of where this tipping point is, if we keep getting money, at some point our basic needs are essentially met. At this point, our ‘psychological’ needs take over. These are more abstract needs and desires, the fulfilling of which makes us happier. It could be desire for success, for approval, for dominance, for new experiences, and so on. Sometimes money helps with these things, sometimes it doesn’t. This would explain why it’s less reliable when it comes to making us happier, when we already have a great deal of it.

There are, of course, many other neurological mechanisms influencing the relationship between money and happiness, like how novel, unexpected things carry more weight than familiar things, hence finding £20 in an old pair of jeans feels more rewarding than finding £250 of pay in your bank account like you do every week. Or the fact that money is an easily quantifiable reward, and the brain likes being able to measure things.

There’s also the fact that the brain seemingly has dedicated systems for assessing how much effort a task or job will require, and the likely reward obtained for it, and determining whether it’s “worth it”. If the answer is ‘no’, then we’ll have little motivation or desire to do it, and will never do it as well as we feasibly could. Therefore, for all that many businesses insist that they want happy employees, it’s going to be a great deal harder to achieve this if you don’t pay them for their labours appropriately.

Intangible benefits like ‘exposure’ or insisting people should do something ‘for the love of it’ are all well and good, but they’re never going to be as rewarding as you hope if the person you’re offering them to is consumed with concern and stress because they don’t have enough money. Whatever your logic and reasoning may be, if you have the money to do so but don’t use it to pay people for their efforts, you’re going to cause more stress, resentment and disloyalty than happiness in those you depend on. Because that’s how the brain works, I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s true that money doesn’t make you happy. But then neither does water by and large. But doing without either can make you distinctly unhappy, and that’s something worth keeping in mind.

Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, writer, comedian and author of The Happy Brain (Guardian Faber), available online now