Why Do We Think Money Buys Happiness?

A Pennsylvania couple's $120,000 spending spree is case study on humanity
By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Greater Good Magazine
September 30, 2019 Updated: October 1, 2019

What would you do if a large amount of money suddenly appeared in your bank account?

For Robert and Tiffany Williams of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, this was more than a thought exercise. In May, their bank accidentally put $120,000 in their account. While nobody knows quite why this happened, we all know what the police said they did next.

Instead of notifying their bank, the Williamses allegedly spent their inadvertent windfall on an SUV, two four-wheelers, and a camper, among other things. They also apparently gave $15,000 to friends who needed money.

They are facing felony theft charges—and massive overdraft fees from the bank.

“All I’m going to say is we took some bad legal advice from some people, and it probably wasn’t the best thing in the end,” Robert Williams told CNN affiliate WNEP outside the court early this month, when the couple made their first appearance in the case.

Research on human social behavior suggests that we should not be too surprised by what they did—but we also shouldn’t be too quick to draw cynical conclusions about humanity from this story.

Humans Prefer Fairness

Despite the allure of gratuitous wealth, exploiting others for personal profit is not considered admirable or virtuous—and, in most circumstances, getting something for nothing doesn’t feel nearly as good as earning it fair and square.

According to research in psychology and neuroscience, people are born with an overriding impulse to cooperate and to make choices that are fair and serve the greater good.

Very young babies prefer friendly, helpful people over villains, and children routinely help strangers without being prompted or congratulated.

Involuntary social isolation (e.g., loneliness, imprisonment) is inherently punishing, while having a friend close by makes challenges feel more doable, or even fun. People naturally form trusting relationships, and befriend, encourage, and console each other. All of this is for the purpose of fostering and maintaining long-term, supportive social bonds.

Wired to Cooperate

When people act generously, do something to uphold justice, or meet a shared goal, the reward pathways in their brains light up with pleasure. The tenth cranial nerve, which relays key signals between the brain and body, inherently links systems for personal calm with pathways that drive interpersonal care and affection. Worldwide, the more charitable residents of different countries are, the higher their national happiness levels are.

Humans, it turns out, are a deeply social species. Our innate “prosocial” urges to concern ourselves with the welfare of others and care about community, to enjoy being generous, and to prefer fair and equitable contexts, are tied to several biological systems that ensure our collective success.

Granddaughter and Grandmother In Garden
Affirming the goodness in life and acknowledging that sources of goodness lie beyond ourselves— can strengthen our common humanity, healthy optimism, and binds us in trusting relationships where others help us and we lend help. (Shutterstock)

At the same time, however, humans learn from experience and adapt to dynamic features of their physical and social settings. When we feel threatened, for example, our biological systems for self-preservation get priority over systems that help us socially connect.

In making decisions, we’re strongly affected by how things are framed and what’s normal amongst the people around us. Very small nudges in language can influence behavior.

For example, if a laboratory task is called “The Community Game,” people play more generously and cooperatively than they do if the exact same task is called “The Wall Street Game.” The same principle seems to apply in other ways as well. If we see others choose a wrong answer, we’re also more likely to choose the wrong answer compared to if we faced the same question alone.

Feelings Affect Decisions

Given the complex array of day-to-day circumstances and choices, people tend to cost-benefit analyze their options based on things like how they feel right then and there, what they think they might gain or lose, and who’s watching—all of which, regrettably, can be surprisingly inaccurate.

When it comes to helping others, we mistake our self-doubt about being able to help for worry that the effort required will deplete us, and thus we fail to intervene. If others are watching, we try harder; if others are there but not reacting, we take the cue to do the same, even if there’s smoke billowing under the door.

As a general pattern, people tend to over-focus on immediate threats and desires and on upholding a favorable personal and social identity. This mostly serves our safety and guides social experience. But under some circumstances, without watchful eyes or collaborative input, our brains can lead us astray.

Our predictions about day-to-day dangers or how pleasurable events will delight us don’t often match what really happens. For example, driving to the beach is far more dangerous than sharks in the ocean, but many ocean swimmers fear sharks more than the drive. And people who play the lottery believe winning will make them much happier than it actually does.

With these facts in mind, it’s not hard to see how people around the Williamses may have influenced them to take the money, by encouraging them to do so. The Williamses also likely overestimated how much pleasure the money would bring them and underestimated the problems that could come from taking the money. And since they likely planned to give some money to their friends right from the start, they probably also thought it would boost their social identity.

When Do We Make Unethical Choices?

There are also other factors that could have affected the Williamses decision. We can’t know for sure, but science suggests that several other forces may have been in play.

First, the money came from a bank error not connected to a particular person—which took empathy out of the equation. If the Williams had considered the fact that their gain would be another person’s loss, they might have acted differently.

This bank error issue also made it seem like nobody was watching, which tends to make people less accountable. When laboratory studies give people chances to cheat in self-interest without hurting others, and without being detected, most do.

Second, people who make morally questionable choices often underestimate their chances of getting caught in the long term, and fall prey to a more fleeting “cheaters high.” People have a cognitive bias toward thinking that they are more invincible than others. The raw appeal of getting away with taking the money may have fueled the Williamses’ decision to go on their ill-advised spending spree.

Thirdly, today’s constantly-on media culture incessantly promotes the idea that happiness comes from consumerism and entertainment. Mainstream channels promise genuine happiness from the fleeting pleasure that comes with new possessions, increased status, or exclusive access to luxury. But studies show that pursuing happiness this way actually makes people less happy. It’s possible that the Williamses, like many others, believed that their new things would bring more happiness than doing the right thing.

In a related vein, we are also in an age of social-media propelled FOMO (fear of missing out), or muted resentment about how much more impressive other people’s privileges and opportunities are than our own. What better way to allay this malaise than to stock up on fancy stuff?

Fourth, the Williamses actually did do something nice—they gave away a chunk of the money to other people. Back to the cost-benefit equation, this variable likely bolstered their moral righteousness in a Robin Hood sort of way. The illusion of restoring broader fairness by giving the nameless-faceless bank’s money away to people who needed it may have countered their sensitivity to the immediate moral failure of theft.

Finally, news stories about people in positions of power behaving unethically and not having to pay the consequences have been dishearteningly common in recent days.

At the same time, there is a wide chasm between sectors of society with deeply conflicting social and political beliefs. These divided sectors face ambiguity about what is factual or “alternate factual,” which undermines a spirit of national consensus and compromise.

This combination of divisiveness and unaccountability is ideal for morally deviant behavior.

Put simply, we’re strongly influenced by what’s happening outside of our heads. If those influences are positive, we’re more likely to make good decisions. If they’re not—if we take “some bad legal advice from some people,” as Robert Williams said—then we find ourselves on the way to jail.

Happiness and Social Goodness

If freely spending $120,000 doesn’t boost happiness, then what does?

Two Multi-State Lotteries Each Offer Over $400 Jackpots
People who play the lottery believe winning will make them much happier than it actually does. (Shutterstock)

According to the science to date, the most promising route to real happiness is through meaningful social connection, contributing to the welfare of others, and having a sense of purpose—in short, feeling like you matter in the world. Fortunately, there are many science-backed practices, activities, and exercises for working toward this kind of happiness.

Mindfulness, for example, helps us be more aware of real-time inner experiences and outer circumstances, in ways that reduce overly self-focused, imagined, or otherwise biased thinking. Getting beyond this self-focus also helps tether decisions to compassionate, ethical values.

At the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), we define mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” This is a practice that can make you more alert to the good things and positive influences around you.

Studies also showcase gratitude—which means affirming the goodness in life and acknowledging that sources of goodness lie beyond ourselves— can strengthen our common humanity, healthy optimism, and binds us in trusting relationships where others help us and we lend help. This is a happiness-increasing formula.

The skills of apology and forgiveness, which the Williamses might need to embrace, also improve happiness. The kind of happiness that comes from prioritizing activities and behaviors like gratitude and helping others feel good and last. They also improve health and longevity, lead to better relationships—and make you more successful. Happier people earn higher salaries, are rated as more socially appealing and deserving of leadership roles, and bring out more happiness in others.

Even if the Williamses hadn’t gotten caught, it is likely that their short-sighted, self-focused, and dishonest choices would chip away at their happiness, even with their small nod to helping others.

While stories like this one can inspire cynicism, they are also great opportunities for reflection and learning. Are there aspects of popular culture and lifestyle that made their choice, alongside the bad legal advice, seem reasonable?

Perhaps this story should compel us to ask deeper questions about what kind of society we have—and what we can do to bring out the best in all of us.

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas holds a doctorate in psychology and is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center. This article was originally published on Greater Good Magazine.

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