Money & happiness: do you turn to spending when you’re stressed, lonely or bored? Here’s why those habits fail to soothe and how you can stop – or eating – Shape Your Life Special
Answer yes or no to the following:
* Do you believe that money can buy you happiness?
* Do you go shopping when you’re anxious, sad or bored?
* Do you believe money can get you the things you want?
* Do you spend money to feel better about being on a diet?
* If you had more money, would people think better of you?
Your answers According to Alan Manevitz, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, who works with families on issues relating to wealth, here’s what your score means:
0-1 “yes” answers Money is not very important to you, nor is it related at all to your happiness.
2-3 “yes” answers You have a sense that money is important and believe that it could be the route to happiness.
4-5 “yes” answers You have an unrealistic belief that money will solve your problems.
Experts say there’s a link between spending, overeating and stress. Turn the page for advice on how to find other means (besides buying or bingeing) for getting what you want and need.
Whether or not you believe that the love of money–or the lack of it–is the root of all evil, chances are you have an opinion about what money means. To some, it represents success, fame. To others: power, acceptance, material goods and status.
Many women, though, use money to fill an emotional hole. When Tomii Crump, 28, moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles for graduate school, she found herself far from family and friends for the first time in her life. She was homesick and lonely and went on shopping binges to fill the void.
“If I was sitting at home, I would get up and go to the mall,” she says. “If I was on my way home, I would, go to the mall. If I did great on a paper for school, I would go to the mall.” Crump could walk into a store and spend indiscriminately, rationalizing to herself that the purchases were on sale. She spent money on shoes, clothes, makeup and accessories that made her feel pretty and better about herself. “I was known as the girl who always looked good,” she says. But these buying binges left her unable to pay her bills as her credit-card debt rocketed to more than $15,000.
There are many of us who feel we can improve our emotional well-being with money, either by acquiring more of it or spending it lavishly. Certainly, when you don’t have enough money to provide for your basic needs–food, shelter, clothing, medical care–money is crucial to your sense of well-being. But once you’re above the poverty level, money loses its ability to boost your happiness quotient. “You get happier at a diminishing rate,” says Andrew Oswald, Ph.D., a professor of economics at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. “The first $20,000 is a lot more valuable than the 12th.”
Richard M. Ryan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Rochester in New York, believes that money is not the way to pursue happiness because the link between the tangible (money) and intangible (happiness) is too weak. “Focus on maintaining and improving the relationships in your life instead,” he says. “Research shows that if they are unfulfilled, you see big drops in happiness.”
Ryan’s research has shown that those who put a lot of value on external goals such as money, fame or status are less happy and well-adjusted. “You don’t find anyone who doesn’t want financial security or success on some level, but how strong a goal is that relative to other goals?” he asks. Even materialists will say that relationships are the most important things in their lives, but unlike nonmaterialists, they will put money as a close second. The time you put into pursuing financial wealth might take away from the things that really could bring you joy.
Here are three healthy ways to take a new look at money. Once you’ve rethought a few of these financial facts, you may realize that there are other things–besides money–that bring happiness. You may even discover that you already have them.
1. ASk, “What is success?”
For some, the size of their bank account determines what they are worth as people. If they could just “make a certain amount of money,” “buy a big house” or “live in a ritzy neighborhood,” then they will have “made it.”
“Materialistic people are insecure,” Ryan says. “They get hooked because they have to convince others they’re worthy by having cool jewelry or hot cars.” The problem is, it’s never enough. If you ask most people how much money they would need to be happy, they will name a figure that’s about 20 percent higher than their current income, Ryan says. And if they get it? “They still think the next 20 percent will do it”
Let’s say with your higher income you move into a nicer neighborhood. Will you feel successful then? Probably not, because you’re now comparing your house not to the ones in your old neighborhood, but to those in your new, wealthier environment. “Human beings seem to have to look over their shoulders before they can decide how successful they really are,” Oswald says. In other words, if you get richer and everyone else stays the same, you feel the benefit. But if everybody around you has more money too, the extra income has no effect. This may explain why a nation that grows wealthier does not necessarily have happier citizens. “Since the early ’70s, real income in Western countries has doubled, but you see no improvement in happiness surveys,” Oswald says.
If you find yourself getting caught in the rat race, ask yourself what you truly think it means to live a successful life, Ryan says. Is it a big bank account or having people love you? Imagine you’re on your deathbed and what your regrets would be, and then live your life so that you won’t have them. “No one ever says, ‘I wish I’d made more money,’ ” he says. “It probably feels great to get into that BMW, but if it cost you an extra year of overtime, was it worth it in what you gave up with your family and friends?”
2. Consider if money can buy what you really want
You may have had the occasional thought that you’d be more satisfied with your life if only you had a sports car or a vacation home. But would you really be content if you got these things? Yes, but only if the wish is one that you can realistically hope to fulfill.
A 2002 study from the University of Illinois published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people were happy when they could expect to obtain the things they desired. For instance, a woman earning minimum wage who wants a portable stereo and can afford it will be more satisfied than a millionaire who wants to own a Caribbean island or private jet that’s out of his price range. And if you don’t hunger for material things at all, you will be more satisfied in life than someone whose desire for things never ends, no matter what your respective incomes are.
For people who place tremendous value on money and objects, life satisfaction may be elusive. “With material possessions, you can always want for something more,” says the study’s lead author, Emily Crawford Solberg, M.A., a graduate student in the psychology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who researches the connection between money and happiness. “There’s no finish line,” she says.
If there’s a big gap between what you want and what you can afford, therapy could help you find more realistic goals so that you can be happier with your life, Solberg says.
3. Change the “value” of money
Three years after incurring a monstrous debt from her self-prescribed shopping therapy, Tomii Crump has learned to control her compulsion to spend.
When she returned home to Philadelphia after she finished school, the size of her credit-card debt forced her to realize she had a problem. Crump changed her behaviors through “a slow weaning process,” she says.
First, she began shopping within her means by paying cash for the things she bought. “When shop now, I’ll buy only one or two things instead of the whole store,” she says.
She also makes a point of turning to family and friends first when she feels the urge to shop. Spending and shopping are still in her life but no longer take center stage.
Putting money in its proper place will help you live a happier life. “Part of the modern American Dream is that money builds happiness, and we know that not to be true,” says Manevitz. “If money and material things are very important to you, what you want to do is find out why.”
For example, you may think you want a large house, but the desire behind it may really be about your need for security. You may feel you have to have a high-paying job, but behind that may actually be a need for approval. It’s OK to have material and financial goals, but you should be enjoying yourself while you pursue them. “Make sure you’re taking time out to have a balanced life,” Manevitz says, ‘because if you’re becoming depressed or compulsive while seeking money, it’s not worth it.”
RELATED ARTICLE: why women turn to eating and spending when they’re unhappy
Both eating and spending can serve as coping mechanisms that offer instant gratification and temporary distraction, says psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute. They give women a sense of control (you decide what or when to spend and eat), and they offer comfort without the threat of rejection. “The cashier or the cookie won’t say, ‘Hey, you’re too needy, I won’t let you have this,’ but a woman’s partner might say, ‘You’re too needy. I can’t give you this attention.'”
Remember, not all shopping or eating is bad when it’s done for comfort, says Alan Manevitz, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. It’s OK to buy yourself a blouse that makes you feel pretty or cook yourself a nice meal when you’re down. “It becomes a problem when somebody spends beyond their budget or eats unhealthfully and then feels bad and regretful about it,” he says. If you find yourself falling into the food or shopping trap, here are a few things you can do: Don’t live in a deprived state. “Women are running on empty and mistake their need for rest or support from their loved ones for being hungry for a bag of chips or a new dress,” Kearney-Cooke says. Make sure you’re getting your needs met in your relationships and caring for yourself. The better care you take of yourself, the better care you will be able to give. Find out what triggers your behavior. Keep a record of when you overeat or overspend, and talk to your friends and family about what they’ve observ ed about your habits, Manevitz says. If you feel the impulse to shop or eat too often, start replacing those urges with healthier behaviors. Do something else you enjoy, like reading or gardening. Make plans with a friend or loved one. Take a brisk walk or exercise. See a movie or make a spa appointment. Just make sure it’s something that gives you pleasure.
Lynda Liu is a health and fitness writer in New York City.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Weider Publications
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