Money and happiness: appreciating the real cost of living

Amy Hirshberg Lederman

Recently, my husband and I went to a Beatles musical revue and had a wonderful time singing and dancing in the aisles with other middle-aged ex-hippies to tunes like “Yellow Submarine,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Michelle.” In the car on the way home, we sang some of our favorites and one song, in particular, struck me as fairly profound. Over 40 years ago the Fab Four wrote about what psychologists and scientists have come to understand and what Judaism has taught since the beginning of time.

That is, “Money Can’t Buy You Love.”

But it sure can do a lot of other things. Money is a powerful force — influencing everything from global politics to how we think about ourselves and perceive others. The topic of money fills shelves at Barnes & Noble and is discussed on television and radio daily. But the “money conversation” — really talking about how we feel about money — is hard and often uncomfortable, especially among family members and friends.

Get a group of women friends together and we can talk about the most intimate things, from female medical problems to the private details of relationships. But when it comes to the size of our bank accounts or credit card debt, we avoid it like the plague. Why?

Are we ashamed, guilty, afraid to disclose what our parents told us is “not to be discussed in public?” Or, do we fear that if others know how much money we have or how we spend it they will judge us?

Scientific research suggests that in a limited way, having money makes us happier because providing for our basic needs makes us feel more secure and satisfied. When we have more than enough to meet our basic needs, it frees us to be able to develop in different ways, to experience pleasure and leisure, to use our time in ways not just related to survival.

When I was growing up, money meant authority. My Dad made the money so he also made the decisions. In our home the Golden Rule meant he who has the gold, rules.

But one thing Dad didn’t tell me is something I have learned over time: that money can be a good servant, but it is a terrible master.

Our American culture is deeply consumer-oriented and consequently, a large measure of our identity is derived from what we earn, own, wear, buy and drive. But when material worth is the primary tool by which we assess our own value, we will rarely, if ever, be happy. Why?

As humans, we compare ourselves to others and make assumptions and judgments (that they are happier, more successful, have more friends) based on what we think they have that we don’t. And then we long for what they have. Keeping up with the “Goldbergs” is a lose-lose proposition: it only serves to increase our dissatisfaction and decrease happiness.

So does another human tendency that psychologists call hedonic adaptation. This means that when we get something new, we may love it for a while but then get used to it. The new car or bedroom set becomes our “new norm.” It’s just a matter of time until we want a bigger car or a larger home. That’s when the vicious cycle of “not-enough” and “if only” thinking takes over.

We all do this to some degree or another. We look at our living room and think, “If only we had a nicer home, we’d entertain more.” Or we book our summer vacation to spend a week at the beach and think, “If only we made more money, we could go for two weeks.”

How can we change this type of toxic relationship to money to one that helps us grow and feel good about ourselves, regardless of how much or how little we have?

The issue of being unhappy with what we have and always wanting more has been around since the beginning of time. Adam and Eve are a great example: God tells them they can eat from any tree in the entire Garden of Eden but the Tree of Knowledge and bingo, Eve goes for the apple from that tree.

Over 2,000 years ago, the rabbis dealt with this problem when they gave us this bit of wisdom: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.”

How do we become happy with our lot?

For that answer I’d need a book, but in a nutshell it’s this: When we use our money for things that represent values that are important to us, we will feel good about ourselves and the money we have.

As Jews we are guided by the Torah, which gives us the blueprint for Jewish living. One of the key values in the Torah is tzedakah — using our money and resources to help those in need.

You want to know an amazing fact? In a recent scientific study, readings from MRIs indicated that giving money to charity stimulates brain activity in the regions of the brain where we experience feelings of pleasure and reward.

Giving of ourselves, in time and money, enhances the biochemistry in our brains and makes us happier!

The beauty of the concept of tzedakah is in its absolute equality. No matter how much or how little we possess, each one of us has the potential to consciously become a better person, a happier person, when we use the money we have for the betterment of the world.

That’s why our sages assure us: “To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means.”

The Beatles may have been right when they sang “Money can’t buy you love!” but it can buy happiness, when we choose to use the money we have to support the values and experiences that give our life meaning.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at