We've all heard the old adage: "money can't buy happiness". This wisdom is imparted by parents and grandparents alike, along with the advice that it's friends, family, experiences, and meaning that lends happiness to our lives. But is this really true?
Your mental health suffers when you live below the poverty line
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) explains that poverty and mental health are closely intertwined -- essentially, people with mental health conditions (such as anxiety, depression, etc.) are more likely to experience poverty. This is often because of stigma and discrimination in the workplace, the fact that it is often difficult to complete higher education while living with mental health concerns, and the reality that mental health concerns can make attendance and performance at work suffer.
Likewise, living in poverty can cause your mental health to suffer. Is it possible to be happy if you can't afford food, shelter, warmth, and safety?
The answer might be "No" if we consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - a diagram that helps us understand the basic necessities that people need in order to live full and happy lives. The diagram is a pyramid, and the idea is that people need to be able to form the foundations of the pyramid before building the upper levels. This means that basic needs (food, water, shelter, warmth, safety, and security) need to be met before people are able to effectively work on other needs such as intimate relationships, friendships, self improvement, and personal accomplishments. So, when your grandma said that it's love and relationships that matter most, she might not have realized that those are difficult to foster when you're struggling to feed yourself, or constantly feeling unsafe. You'll notice that all of the basic needs are things that cost money - including safety and security! Many people who live below the poverty line may not have a safe and secure place to live.
Levels of happiness rise above the poverty line - well above!
A Princeton University study revealed that levels of happiness actually do increase as wage increases, plateauing around $75,000 annually. An number of contributing factors and explanations are offered.
Most importantly, it appears that people are not inherently unhappier with less money, however lower earnings is a contributing factor that can magnify the emotional distress of other difficult life events. For example, the emotional trauma of losing a loved one might be deepened and complicated by worrying about funeral expenses, caring for dependents, continuing to afford housing, etc. - making the whole situation feel more intense, upsetting, and overwhelming.
In addition, income levels and happiness are closely related to self-esteem and personal values - the researchers found that people were happier with more money in part because they felt "successful" and had a sense that their life was on the right track. In Western cultures such as Canada and the USA, many people equate self-esteem with a successful career and accumulated wealth - so those of us who don't have our ducks in a row and money in the bank can be made to feel like "failures" by the capitalist standards of society.
Money is also a resource, which may increase social interaction
The Princeton University study also concluded that individuals with more disposable income are more able to use this income to go out, spend time with friends, and have experiences that might have been difficult (or impossible!) if the funds were not available. Thus, grandma is definitely on to something when she says social connections are one road to happiness, but having some extra money can definitely help these connections occur.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, mostly I just want to reassure you that there are clinicians out that who know that you can't just snap your fingers and feel better- in part because there might be contributing circumstances in your environment that make it very difficult for you to claw your way out of the depression or anxiety hole. Your mental health journey towards feeling better will probably look different than the journey of someone with money to burn.
I also just want to put a gentle reminder out there into the world: if you think you cannot afford therapy, take a look at your insurance policy! Many insurance providers cover the services of a Registered Psychotherapist.