That’s despite the fact that, above a certain pay grade, there’s no evidence that money can make you any happier. A major survey done by Princeton University found that while making below $75,000 a year can cause unhappiness, once you’re at that income level, increases in wealth have no impact on your emotional wellbeing.
“As long as we feel like we’re doing average and have basic needs met, such as food and shelter, there is no correlation between money and happiness,” says Brad Klontz, PsyD, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute and an economics and finance professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Then why does money stress us out? Klontz says the reasons are biological and psychological, with the root cause being the fact that we compare our financial status to others.
“We compare the degree to which we’re financially well-off to others around us. That’s why you see extremely poor people in other countries report more subjective well-being and better sense of happiness,” explains Klontz. “And people, who have a hundred times more, say in this country, who feel miserable and poor because they are comparing themselves to those around them who are wealthier.”
Koorosh Ostowari, author of “The Money Anxiety Cure,” calls this money anxiety disorder. Believing that making a certain amount of money will make you feel safe is true to some point, he says, and whether those needs are imagined or not, they send signals to the body that there’s some kind of danger.
“The fear of danger or that you won’t survive or make it is real,” says Ostowari, adding that the stress can have physical responses not unlike an animal’s when they’re in defence mode or on the hunt. “Restriction in the throat, hunched shoulders, increased heart rate, pain in the chest — the body is ready for the fight-or-flight response,” he explains.
Some of the anxiety related to money is good, notes Ostowari. “The good stress mobilizes you, and warns you to watch out, and not to overextend yourself or borrow too much or be too generous,” he explains. “Then there’s the superficial response that makes you say, ‘I’m not enough and I’m lacking,’ which affects your self-worth.”
The good news? There are healthy ways to approach money concerns. Here are a few to consider.
Think about your inherited views on money
Our beliefs about money are typically unconscious and passed down to us from our parents, grandparents, culture, and society, says Klontz. “The two things we need for financial health and security are: to save money for the future, and not to spend more than we make,” he explains.
If you’re stressed about money, Klontz says to ask yourself:
- What economic class was I raised in?
- How did my parents think about money?
- What is my earliest memory about money?
- What is my most painful memory about money?
Your answers may reveal a lot.
Ostowari agrees, and says to take it a step further. “Ask yourself if the ideas and perceptions about money that you inherited from your family and culture are really true. Are wealthy people always greedy? Is there really virtue in living with less? Do you really have to struggle and live in scarcity? Will money solve your problems?” he says. “If your answers match your reality, then deal with it, but if they don’t, then replace your old story with a new one.”
Think of money as a tool
Klontz says viewing money as a tool can give you a sense of control. He suggests thinking of it like a hammer that can be used to create a home or to demolish it. “Money’s just a tool, and in the right hands it can be used to make something beautiful, but when it’s mishandled it can destroy things and hurt people,” he explains.
Giving money too much control in terms of self-worth and happiness can have a negative effect. “There was a study on lottery winners and accident victims,” notes Klontz. “In the short term, lottery winners reported being happier, but then when stretched out over a longer period of time, accident victims were happier because they gained pleasure and appreciation for daily events.”
Be mindful with money
We often spend money to fill an emotional hole. “We might spend money if we are feeling lonely or depressed. It helps in the short term, but then fades,” says Klontz.
Ostowari says that practicing mindfulness is a good way to feel a sense of wholeness. He suggests trying it out when buying gifts, food, and paying your bills.
“When you’re about to write a check for your electric bill, don’t rush and throw the check in the envelope and send it off. Pause, take a breath, be prideful and thankful that you have the money to pay for it,” he says.
“This is called walking meditation,” explains Ostowari. “You slow down, feel the pen in your hand when writing, feel the check in your hand as you put it in the envelope. All of this while feeling grateful to participate in a give-and-take relationship.”
Setting aside a time every day to think about your finances is another way to stay mindful. “Look at your check book every day, or do something that keeps your relationship with money fresh and alive,” says Ostowari.
“If you don’t for a few days, you get rusty or worried about what you spent. This will bring spending to the forefront of your life,” he adds.
Mimic the behaviours of the financially healthy
Klontz says that a financially healthy person displays some anxiety around money. The good anxiety allows them to understand that if they spend all their money, they won’t have any. “It’s often millionaires who don’t spend a lot of money,” says Klontz. “Many get there with an entire lifetime of savings and diligence. They might have 18 times more money than a person who’s middle class, but have a home the same size.”
Klontz says financially healthy people also have the following:
- Lower consumer debt, like credit card debt
- An active savings plan and money set aside in case of emergencies
- An active retirement savings plan
- Good relationships with their partner and kids around money
- A sense of pride that they’re living within their means
Reach out for help
Keeping your financial struggles to yourself adds to the stress, says Klontz. He suggests reaching out to someone in your life who’s financially healthy and asking them if they could give advice. “People love to talk about themselves and pass along wisdom,” he notes.
For professional help, seek out a financial planner. If you think your finances are a mess and you need more in-depth help, Klontz says to consider seeing a financial therapist — such as one with the Financial Therapy Association.
“A lot of people are terrified to get help from a planner, but if you outsource your family’s dental care even though you have a drill and plyers at home, why wouldn’t you do that for your financial health?” says Klontz.
Money doesn’t have to control you. You can control how it affects your life and your health on a day-to-day basis. From professional help to everyday tasks you can do yourself, there are many resources available to help you get your finances — and how you think about them — on track.