Smartphones. Televisions. Cars. Clothing, shoes, and accessories. The number of items we can throw our money at is limitless, but it makes us wonder why we are never fulfilled. Why does satisfaction with our new toy end, causing us to buy another item to spark our happiness? It turns out that money can’t buy happiness, and here’s why.
Marketing Creates Desires for Products You Don’t Need
You’ve probably never heard of the man who could control minds. His name was Edward Bernays, and he is still today one of the most influential people in marketing and public relations.
To make a long (and somewhat scary) story short, Bernays figured out how to use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control people’s desires in specific ways.
Bernays had a humble beginning, though with rich family connections. Bernays is related to Sigmund Freud — his mother was Freud’s sister, and his father was the brother of Freud’s wife.
Edward Bernays himself was born in Austria, but his family moved to the United States one year after his birth. He studied agriculture at Cornell University but chose to pursue journalism instead, where he learned the mechanics of interviews, stories, and media.
Bernays eventually went on to help the Woodrow Wilson administration in World War I, through which they intended to bring democracy in Europe. His time during the war provided Bernays the top materials for his work on propaganda. He saw first hand how propaganda could mobilize citizens to act when the country’s leaders desperately needed them to.
To Bernays, if propaganda could sway people’s minds during wartime, it could do the same during peace as well. The first thing Bernays did was rebrand “propaganda” as “public relations,” as the former had negative connotations because of the war.
So, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bernays drew upon Uncle Freud’s insights to then master the “engineering of consent,” as he called it. He observed how wartime regiments controlled the masses without their knowledge using their unconscious mind, and that’s how Bernays worked with companies to market their products to the unconscious.
One example of Bernays’ public relations campaign is with Lucky Stripes. At the time of Bernays’ campaign, cigarette smoking was only for men, as the act was seen as too crude and masculine for a woman to do. So George Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, hired Bernays to get women to smoke and capitalize on that untapped market.
Bernays looked around at what women wanted. This was at the time of the burgeoning feminist movement, where women were shedding their oppressive roles and fighting for equality. Bernays labeled Lucky Stripes cigarettes as “torches for freedom,” suggesting that smoking this male-associated item is a step toward feminist liberation.
Bernays also tapped the non-feminist female market as well. Along with the “torches for freedom,” campaign, Bernays also said that smoking cigarettes would help with weight loss — another concern women had.
With the phrase “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” and other smart tactics, the cigarettes successfully tapped into a woman’s unconscious need to be thin and beautiful.
The campaign worked, and more women than ever smoked cigarettes. Bernays went on to work with manufacturers like Procter & Gamble, General Electric, and even politicians like Calvin Coolidge — who Bernays helped win the election of 1924.
Bernays’ Tactics Today
You see the same tactics to our unconscious today. Let’s use the “I’m on a Horse” Old Spice commercial as an example. The first thing you see is an attractive, muscular, half-naked man with exuberant, self-assured charm talking to the camera.
Despite Old Spice is a product for men, the speaker addresses women in a relationship with a man, saying that her man could be him if her man smelled like him. Therefore, a woman’s boyfriend should stop using the “lady scented body wash” that prevents the boyfriend from being like the desirable man in the commercial.
In the logic of the ad, using Old Spice lets you become the man who’s on a boat, with tickets “to the thing you love” that then hold diamonds. The commercial ends with the tagline “smell like a man, man.”
Despite making no rational sense, this ad gained over 56 million views on YouTube. While the random internet humor aspect of the commercial certainly helped it go viral, the unconscious message is effective for both men and women, like with Lucky Stripes.
Using an attractive, rich, desirable man to address women prompts women to at least remember Old Spice when going shopping. Why? Because subconsciously, she wants to see those same qualities in her partner.
For men, Old Spice now has the connotations of confidence, sexiness, and captivating masculinity. What man wouldn’t like to see those qualities in themselves? As such, Old Spice sticks in their minds as well.
This commercial used humor as the vehicle for unconscious desires both genders want, which is why Old Spice is one of the top-selling deodorant brands in the USA as of 2018.
Marketing Uses Your Unconscious Against You
The reason marketing is successful (and so detrimental to your happiness) is because of this manipulation of your subconscious. Marketers are excellent psychoanalysts in 2019, so they know how to tap into most people’s deepest insecurities, fears, and desires.
To revert to the Old Spice example, women want an attractive, confident, rich man. Men want to be that attractive, confident, and rich man, and Old Spice posits itself as the solution for both parties to get what they want.
See how perfect that is? Buy the product to get what you want — that’s the core of marketing.
But when you actually buy the product, you see that your insecurities and fears remain. Chances are, the product didn’t live up to its full purpose of eradicating your unconscious vulnerabilities.
So you keep buying different items in hopes that one product will fulfill you, but it never can. No product can completely rid you of your insecurity and fear. Only deep psychological introspection and positive self-growth can do that, but that takes a long time to do. In the meantime, buy a product to provide a quick — if short-lived — fix.
So no matter how much money you have, the products companies market toward you will never make you happy because of the manipulative nature of marketing. Someone, through whatever means, told you that the product you want to buy would improve your happiness, but we’re telling you to notice their messages wherever they are and ignore them.
Planned Obsolescence Reduces Happiness
Companies plan obsolescence in their smartphones, tablets, and computers. The money you spent to buy the products that once made you happy will no longer make you happy in a few years. You’ll have to buy the newest product to support that happiness, which will only become obsolete.
Apple has been notorious for planned obsolescence. Inc describes the case when the planned obsolescence first became known. The iPhone 4 would work perfectly fine for many users until the iPhone 5C came out. The company would consistently prompt iPhone 4 users to update to iOS 7, but the iPhone 4 mechanics couldn’t handle it.
Therefore, updating the iPhone would have caused it to slow down significantly and drain the battery quicker. Their once convenient smartphone would become the bane of many users’ existence.
More companies, such as Microsoft, ink cartridge producers, and fast fashion designers, design planned obsolescence into their products more quietly. Therefore, you can’t trust that the things you buy, especially if they’re planned to be obsolete in a few years, will make you happy.
The happiness you gain will be brief, and you’ll be back to square one — or even worse off than before you bought it when the product you spent so much money on starts to fail on you.
Money Sets Up the Wrong Priorities
We’ve all heard it before — someone who pursues a career simply because of the high-paying salary. It’s why a lot of parents push their kids into medical and law school — much to the young student’s chagrin. They know that they have dreams more meaningful to them but perhaps not as lucrative, such as writing, performing, or niche humanities.
But those who end up quitting their comfortable and stable careers (even if they have the much-desired health benefits) wind up being much happier. Take it from Kat Boogaard.
Boogaard doesn’t say where exactly she worked before quitting, but it was a high-paying job with benefits — the dream for lots of people. She had worked there as a college intern and was employed there ever since.
But sitting in her manager’s office, scratching against the torn upholstery of his chair, made her quake with nerves. She was quitting stability in search of a romantic notion of fulfillment.
Even her manager suspected as much, betrayed by the bemused look on his face.
Boogaard knew she had to quit, though, to become a full-time freelance writer — a desire pulling on her coattails for some time.
She realized that a stable job with high-paying money wasn’t worth the strain on her mental health. She had to keep her dream of being a freelance writer compartmentalized in her mind so that the more logical desires of financial security takes place. Her coworkers were skeptical as to why she would want to do that, but Boogaard had to stop prioritizing money over fulfillment.
Lessons From Choosing a Job for the Money
Choosing the job for the salary means that you work for money instead of your enjoyment. It’s a tradeoff many people are happy to make. Working their job for a few hours a day gives them the time to support other hobbies, like writing fiction, crafting, or building a business.
But as we learn from Boogaard, your unconscious craves fulfillment from another source. The work you put into your job can’t be for something your brain doesn’t enjoy. It will keep nagging you and pushing you to pursue something that better suits it, which means you could be quitting your stable life of comfort to pursue something you have no plan for.
It’s the necessary choice to put your happiness over your job. Your work should be for the relationships and quality you’d like to have, and if being an accountant doesn’t fall into that, then you shouldn’t feel compelled to choose that career simply because it pays well.
When you choose to work for money overworking for enjoyment, your paycheck becomes your metric of happiness rather than the pursuit of happiness itself. You could also put your relationships and other personal hobbies on the back burner because your whole life is set up to support your work, not your work to support your life.
Working for money establishes the wrong priorities in your life, but if you keep going down the money-lined path you’ll be so deep in the woods it will be hard to pull yourself out of it until you finally wake up at 50 and realize you’ve spent your life thus far working for everyone else except yourself.
Don’t go down that path. You can avoid a midlife crisis if you start working for yourself now, and put money as the side-kick to that super dream.
It’s Not What You’ll Think About Near Your End Days
When Patrick Ney walked into a bar to watch to Polish Cup between Legia Warsaw and Lech Poznan and didn’t remember coming home.
At the bar, someone hit him with a blunt object so hard he fell unconscious. The arteries in his head burst and his skull filled with blood, an incident called hematoma. The hematoma pressed on his skull. If something went wrong, the hematoma could cause permanent brain damage — even death.
The brain damage put Ney in a difficult position. He could choose to wait for the hematoma to dissipate naturally, with the possibility of a complication causing motor, memory, and speech problems. Or he could undergo a craniotomy, in which the doctor would drill into and remove part of his skull to remove the hematoma. The operation was potentially fatal.
Patrick Ney had to choose between waiting or the operation. In that time, he did not think about money. He didn’t think about status or his sprouting YouTube career.
He thought about his family and friends. Love was all he thought about, and the limitless outpouring he had for those close to him. Even the people he barely knew; Ney loved to death even strangers sharing his hospital bed with him. At what could have been the end of his life, Ney only cared about his relationships and connections he had with people.
Ney chose the craniotomy and lived to tell the tale, but he kept with him the lesson he learned on his deathbed. Love, nothing else, is what matters. That’s what you’re going to think about when the end of your days draws near.
If you’re perfectly healthy now and setting up your career to allow you to accumulate the most wealth, reconsider your decisions. Do you want to spend your life chasing an ever-higher standard of wealth? Or do you want to spend that time living comfortably but prioritizing the people you love?
As Ney says at the end of his TEDx Talk, you already know the answer.
Money Can Strain a Relationship
Money is the root of all problems, as they say, and that saying is especially true for relationships.
According to Psychology Today, “financial infidelity” stresses even the best relationships. Perhaps you spent more money on shopping than you intended and now you’re hiding the purchases from your partner. Or maybe you had to dip into the joint savings account to pay for an expense you don’t want your partner to know about.
The more financially codependent you are with your partner, the quicker financial issues can grow if you compound the financial issues with dishonesty. Money equates to both your and your partner’s livelihoods, so adding money into the mix can exacerbate existing issues and create problems when there were initially none.
Another way money can stress relationships is if the people entering the relationship do so for the wrong reasons. We see this all the time with celebrity relationships, sugar daddy scenarios, and other partnerships based off one person using the relationship to access the other person’s money.
In those types of cases, the relationship is built on unsteady ground. Money, not love, is the pursuit of the relationship. Using what we learned from Patrick Ney, we see that this arrangement has inverted priorities. In this example, you don’t value the person you’re with at all, just their wallet.
When you put money above relationships, you’re bound to have a loveless, lonely existence. You might be rich, sure, but at the cost of setting up a lifetime worth of regret on your deathbed.
How to Use Money to Support Your Happiness
You now know that money cannot buy happiness. No single product will do that for you. Happiness can be seen as an emergent property of everything else in your life going right. You can buy products to facilitate that happiness, and here’s how.
Buy Items That Are Investments
Instead of disposable purchases, like fast fashion, by clothing that will last you for many years. They’ll be a little more expensive now, but the amount of time you continue to use that product will make up for its cost.
For example, laptops are important tools that nearly everyone in the Global North needs to use. But there are lots of laptop companies offering products at different prices. You could buy a cheap laptop now to cover your needs, but in a few years it could physically break down, the hard drive could crash, or it could get so many viruses that it’s not worth using anymore.
The cheaper products rarely last as long as you need them to. If you have to, save up for more expensive yet higher-quality items. They’ll need fewer repairs in the short-term and continue to fulfill your needs in the long-term.
That way, the items you use are one less thing to worry about in your daily life. A cheap laptop is more likely to act up and cause a headache than a higher-quality one, letting you save money and your sanity as well.
Use Money to Give Yourself Free Time
When you have money, you can afford to do nothing for a certain amount of time and still support yourself. There will come the point when the cost of bills and food will be covered, a little bit of money saved up, and still time left in the month.
In the time when you’re not financially obligated to take on another job or other source of income, you can use that time for more fulfilling activities.
For example, if you have a job that pays well, you can use evenings and weekends to create art. You can work on novels or other projects that bring you joy. If you’re working, and especially working a job only to see a paycheck at the end, it’s likely you’re not spending that time in a fulfilling way.
Using your free time for your personal enjoyment, then, is a way to foster happiness in your life. The joy you get from finishing a project and sharing it with others brings you the happy contentment that you can, at least in some of your time, do something that makes you feel like your life isn’t a mix of work and sleeping.
You should use money as a way to give you this sacred free time. You should not use money as an end in itself, to accumulate money to stow it in a bank somewhere. Money should be a means to an end, and that end should be doing what you feel you were actually put on this earth to do.
How to Actually Be Happy
Money cannot buy happiness. You cannot buy a thing that will suddenly make all your troubles go away. You cannot use money and the power that comes with it as a proxy for meaningful relationships.
You will not think about money on your deathbed unless it relates to the people you love. Love, relationships, and connections are the building blocks of happiness.
You could attract people to hang out with you because you have beautiful clothes, a big house, or lots of nice gadgets and trinkets surrounding you. But, the relationships you have with those people will feel contrived. Fake. That’s not the way to happiness.
Instead, the way to actually be happy is to create various systems in your life that bring you joy. Those systems depend on who you are and what your interests are. If you want to live ethically and conscientiously, you’ll most likely find an eco-friendly lifestyle most meaningful.
Compound the sustainable living with meeting people who share similar values with you, and a relationship built off common interests, emotional vulnerability, and unbreakable trust. All of these will bring more happiness than buying any product.
So, sure, money has some role in happiness. Researchers say that people are happiest when they earn an annual salary of around $75,000. That amount of money lets them take care of housing, food, transportation costs, and entertainment while allowing them to plan for the future. That amount of money also gives people plenty of downtime to relax and use at their discretion.
But when you work to save up money or to blow it on some fancy purchase, you’re missing the point of how money can facilitate your happiness. You’ll get caught in a circular wheel of marketed desire (thanks to Edward Bernays’ principles) prompting you to buy things that will give you short-term happiness without emphasizing what really matters.
Money can seriously reduce your happiness when you make it your priority, so zoom out on your life and take stock of what really matters. It should be the people in your life, not the things.
Happiness Isn’t Cheap
We don’t mean monetarily. Happiness will require a lot of effort and time. It will mean spending hours (roughly 200) needed to forge a deep friendship with someone. It means being emotionally vulnerable in relationships rather than using money as a deflection for emotions. It means living your life with your values at the core, not some company’s.
Happiness is like when you clean your whole house and put everything in working order. This is a house filled with people you love, where everything works right. You can breathe and know that all that efficiency is the product of your hard work and desire to be a happy person, not only a rich one.
Stop prioritizing money. Start living your life with a “happiness-first” mindset. Not only will you stop wasting your time on things that don’t matter but you’ll gravitate toward the activities you’ll remember when it’s your last days on earth.