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Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton


From a young age stories like King Midas, Faust and Ebenezer Scrooge drum into us the message that the one thing lots of money does not bring is happiness. It might make you powerful, give you a home filled with lots of nice things, even find you a beautiful wife or husband, but it doesn’t necessarily follow through that it will make you a happy and fulfilled individual.

But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if having a building full of cash like Scrooge McDuck made you relaxed and content with your lot in life rather than miserly and lonely?

That was the initial question that provided the inspiration for Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton’s book Happy Money.

The two social science academics came together to find out what adults spend with their money and how they could spend their money in less typical, happier ways.

So in the first chapter it argues that if you want to really avoid “buyers’ remorse” then the best thing to spend money on is experiences rather than mere items like houses, clothes or jewellery.

A bungey jump, a trip to the theatre are all classified as experimental purchases. The book describes people dining out at very expensive (and now closed) Spanish restaurant elBulli or paying out money to fly into space and the key to making it a happy experience is the fact that it connects them with others, is memorable and unique. Google has moved away from rewarding its top executives in monetary terms as they proved divisive and not as meaningful as a life experience.

This theme of companies providing staff with something else other than money is followed up later in the book when it reveals that top companies like Intel have developed creative strategies to give even their busiest employees a sense of influence over their own time.

Google, again, also pays employees (well, its engineers at least) not to do their actual jobs and they can use 20 per cent of their time on something else. This policy has led to the development of Gmail, the star maps systems Google Sky and the company says culturally it has been important to have the system in place.  

But using time to benefit organisations and companies is clearly difficult. The book points out that people paid by the hour rather than a monthly salary are more inclined to give up additional time for additional money, though they are also less inclined to do volunteer work as well as they know the precise value of their time.

And in the final chapter it takes as its starting point the idea in 2010 of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to ask America’s richest billionaires to give a large chunk of their wealth.

Buffett himself gave up 99 per cent of his wealth and was quoted as stating “he couldn’t be happier”.

Much has been written about Buffetts’ frugal existence and his investing habits but the book’s authors argue that what we could really benefit from taking note of us is his investment in others, which is apparently the secret to real happiness.

The book describes an interesting study handing out Starbucks gift cards to people but with a series of conditions. One group could use the card on themselves, another group on someone else but not accompany that person and the third group on someone else and accompany them. The latter group got the most enjoyment from from the gift card.

The book certainly confirms how best to spend your and if you are weighing up whether to blow your money on a flash new car or life changing holiday for your entire family, this should definitely make up your mind.


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