The Rational Basis® of Happiness Podcast

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Happiness and Money

Can money buy happiness? A short interview with Dr. Tara Smith

(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


Movie clip:      

Male:               I haven’t been the same ever since you started working.

Female:           If you weren’t always so broke, I wouldn’t have to work.


Dr. Kenner:      That’s from a movie Kidco, meaning Kid Company. Some adorable kids start their own company and that was made long ago, I think in the 1980s, and I still remember it fondly. I think it helped my kids earn an appreciation for money. That idea – if you weren’t so broke you wouldn’t have to work. On one hand, what is work? Is work drudgery? Is earning money drudgery? Or can money buy happiness? If you work, can it contribute to your happiness? If you earn money, can it contribute to it? With me to discuss this is Dr. Tara Smith, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and she’s the author of several books and numerous articles on moral, political and legal philosophy including a wonderful pamphlet, must-get pamphlet, “Money Can Buy Happiness.” I said “can” buy happiness, and that’s available at my website, or I want to welcome you Dr. Tara Smith to the show.


Dr. Smith:        Thank you for having me.


Dr. Kenner:      Can you address ways in which money contributes to happiness?


Dr. Smith:        Sure. Money is vital to happiness. Because money stands for goods. Money stands for values that human beings have created. Material values, services, so again not just products like bread and shoes and clothes and computers, but services.


Dr. Kenner:      The hairdresser or the doctor’s visit?


Dr. Smith:        Haircuts, doctor’s visit certainly. There are all sorts of good things, useful, valuable things, life-enhancers. These are the values that men, human beings create, and then money is the way we trade those things. So money is the way we get them. If we ourselves are creators, producers of something that other people want. So money enables us to get more goods, genuine goods, in our lives.


Dr. Kenner:      And we need those goods.


Dr. Smith:        I mean, it doesn’t contribute sort of some sort of peripheral further ribbon on your happiness, it’s vital to your being able to customize your life. To make it more and more the way you want your life, your days to be.


Dr. Kenner:      So the more you earn, the broader your scope of living? Like the more you can get. My husband can go out and get a hip replacement from somebody who came up with a new procedure on replacing hips. So he, instead of living for the rest of his life in pain and unable to dance, a week after the hip operation was able to dance, which is astounding.


Dr. Smith:        It’s wonderful, and wonderful that he had been productive enough, that he had saved enough money, such that he had that option. It’s wonderful that other people had come up with this wonderful product, the hip replacement, but the more money you have, the more options you have. Options not only on how to spend your money, but how to spend your time. What to do with the hours in a day.


Dr. Kenner:      So money contributes to happiness because we can get the material things – the hip or the haircut or the new dress or a new home or a vacation. And what about spiritual things? Does money contribute to spiritual happiness?


Dr. Smith:        Yes. First let me clarify what I mean by spiritual, because I think a lot of people tend to equate the spiritual with the mystical.


Dr. Kenner:      And the self-deprecating, that you have to give up everything.


Dr. Smith:        That’s not it. I have no truck with those ideas. But by spiritual, as opposed to material, what I’m referring to are things like your psychological well-being, your emotional well-being. We all know the difference between certain compartments as we sometimes think of them in a person’s life. “Yeah, he’s got a well-paying job, but he’s not really happy. Or he’s kind of miserable or lonely or the rest of his life doesn’t seem really fleshed out and satisfying to him.” I mean, people go to therapists like yourself because spiritually, there are other sorts of values that are lacking in their lives. They’re not material goods, it’s not something in your back pocket or bank account, but let me give a few examples. Education can be a spiritual value to you. It feeds your mind, your ability to think, to make decisions, emotional well-being. Art. Music. Good literature. Dancing, an example you gave. These things fulfill you spiritually. Good relationships with other people. Good friends, even casual friends. These are pluses to your overall well-being. Material well-being is extremely important because we are material beings. But we’re also spiritual beings. We have psyche and those need to be nourished by these spiritual goods as well, and again, getting back to the point of money, the more money you have, the more options you have. How to feed all of your values, material and spiritual, how to feed all the things that enable you to have the best, most enjoyable, most satisfying life you can.


Dr. Kenner:      So the more you have, the more happiness you have, essentially? If you use it well. People can misuse their money. People can have ill begotten money, money that they got from an entitlement program or something that they didn’t achieve. But that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about people who earn money. It expands their scope of living and it enhances them both in the things that they’re able to buy – a better house, even I was going to say the better mousetrap – but we have a groundhog at our house and maybe we could pay for a company to come in and get rid of it so it doesn’t eat our garden and that would be both a material and a spiritual gain. I mean, it’s small.


Dr. Smith:        Again, money doesn’t guarantee happiness and people can go after money for stupid reasons that aren’t going to feed their happiness. They can misuse money that they have. There’s no guarantee. But properly used, and properly produced and gained and earned, money … again, remember what it stands for. It stands for value. The more values I’m able to acquire and choose, customizing what I choose to my overall conception of my having a happy life, the better off I am. We should all wish great wealth and prosperity to one another and to ourselves.


Dr. Kenner:      You’ve said that, we all hear “time is money,” but money is time too? We just have a few moments left, but do you want to address that?


Dr. Smith:        Yes, I think that’s a really, and I have to say I gained that insight from Ayn Rand. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, she talks about this, how we all know that time is money and if you’re dawdle, you’re wasting money. But why is money valuable? Money is valuable because in effect, it extends the amount of time you have to spend in ways that you like. The less time I have to spend simply making ends meet, getting that meal on my table tonight or tomorrow morning, the less time I have to work doing that because of the more goods I’ve already produced and money I’ve already accumulated, the more choices I have for spending my time in a way that’s going to be most valuable to me. That’s the real value of money.


Dr. Kenner:      So at the heart it expands your options, basically, and it expands your happiness. If you earn it properly and use it well to enhance both your material well-being and your spiritual well-being.


Dr. Smith:        Yes.


Dr. Kenner:      I want to encourage people, if you like what you’re hearing or you want more information on it, Dr. Tara Smith, who I’m speaking with, has written an incredible little pamphlet. Very concise and to the point and readable. “Money Can Buy Happiness.” It doesn’t guarantee it as you said and it won’t buy it for everyone, it depends on your character, but it’s a wonderful little find. You can get it at or at my website, Dr. Tara Smith, I want to thank you for being with us today.


Dr. Smith:        Thank you.