Dear Graduates: Money Is a Means

The recent NY Times article “Dear Graduates: Money Is a Means” by Daniel Akst is good reading for all those still denying the importance of money in life.

HAPPINESS is a hot topic among social scientists. Economists, psychologists and others are finding joy by investigating what makes the rest of us happy and by poking holes in our assumptions on this topic, which has been in the air partly because of Daniel Gilbert’s witty new book, “Stumbling on Happiness.”

On one point, the findings of the research are clear: Whatever happiness is and however it is derived, money can’t buy it. Oh, money can help if you’re living in a cardboard box, of course, but once your basic needs are met, it won’t increase your happiness much — and it may even hurt by keeping you on an earning-and-spending treadmill that diverts time and energy from family, friends and community life.

While it’s hardly news that money won’t buy happiness, the observation should be greeted with suspicion when delivered in a cascade of books by the prosperous and the tenured (none of whom, to my knowledge, have instructed their agents to negotiate smaller book advances). Tuition bills notwithstanding, impressionable young people may be especially prone to regard money as little more than a means to despoil the environment in the name of pointless materialism.

It’s graduation season, and once again affluent commencement speakers are fanning out across the land in something like an organized smear campaign against the almighty dollar. So I feel that it’s my solemn duty to offer a little corrective: Graduates, it’s not fashionable to say it, but money will, in fact, buy you a better life, all other things being equal. And if it can’t buy happiness outright, it can certainly help you avoid a lot of misery.

If you’re a man, money will probably play a role in how successful you are with women, as the psychologist David M. Buss makes plain in “The Evolution of Desire,” his remarkable survey of human mating strategies. Researchers have confirmed in the laboratory what many single men know from real life. In one experiment, women were shown photographs of the same men, sometimes dressed in fast-food uniforms and at other times in classy business attire. When the men wore clothes that screamed “money,” they were rated as more attractive.

If you’re a woman, money of your own can help you maintain your independence, counterbalance the power of men and, if you do want an affluent, high-status mate, move in the circles where you’re most likely to find one. (Women’s incomes seem to matter less to men, who are much more concerned with a mate’s looks.) For those who plan a family, money will largely determine the quality of education that your children receive, because the priciest communities typically have the best public schools. Private schools will require even more cash.

If money can’t make you happier, maybe you can take comfort in knowing that it can help you live longer. The poor and the elderly receive government health insurance, but most Americans get only the medical coverage that they or their employers can buy. Thus, if you become ill, having money can determine whether you get treatment. In general, more income and education mean a longer life. So does increased social status, which is also associated with money. In the so-called Whitehall studies of British civil servants, for example, researchers have found that an individual’s occupational grade was strongly correlated to longevity: the higher the grade, the longer the life.

As you graduates will learn sooner or later from experience, happiness is at least partly inborn, though it also has a lot to do with good health, good relationships and time spent pleasurably. Sad to say, money can help with everything except your natural disposition. Chances are that even the crankiest among us will consider ourselves better off with a more desirable spouse, better schools for our children, higher status and surer access to health care. That is to say nothing of the wherewithal to tell the boss to take a hike if you don’t like his tone. As Dostoyevsky reminds us, money really is “coined liberty.”

THERE is also evidence that happiness comes as much from giving as receiving, and dollars can help here, too. Of course, earning more means that you can give more. But making money, in and of itself, is one of the best ways you can help your fellow man.

After all, the world’s richest societies tend to be the healthiest and the most advanced in protecting civil rights and the environment, for example. (So do those with less inequality, although overall wealth matters in those countries, too.)

Ultimately, perhaps the most important thing that money buys is civilization, with all its well-known discontents — including the knowledge that money and happiness often go hand in hand. But that’s not news, either. As Samuel Johnson recognized long ago, “He who is rich in a civilized society must be happier than he who is poor.”