"We were expecting happy, instead we got success" - Keith J Cunningham

Etinosa Agbonlahor

11/8/20236 min read

a group of people sitting at a table
a group of people sitting at a table


When he was a young real estate investor (decades ago), Pete Fortunato tried to buy a house from his parent’s friends – a couple whom he had known for a long time. He made them a good well-thought-out offer, which they promptly rejected. Stung, Pete figured they wanted more money than he could offer, and turned his investment efforts elsewhere.

A few months later, he ran into a fellow real estate investor who casually informed him that he had bought the same house from their mutual friends. Pete was stunned and asked how much he paid.

“Oh, they wanted to take a cruise on their wedding anniversary, so I offered to pay for that cruise every year for the next twenty years.” His friend grinned.

With a flourish, Pete, telling us this story at a conference more than thirty years later, says, “Nobody wants money. They want what money can get them. Money is a conduit.


I’ve recently become interested in the mechanism of happiness—experienced happiness captured in moments of joy and ecstasy (rather than general life satisfaction, which is sometimes used to measure emotional well-being). The kind of happiness which philosophers suggest is fleeting and undermined by our natural instincts to do something.

As a behavioral scientist with a focus on how improving financial wellbeing can restore dignity, provide access and help people lead better lives, I’m curious about the intersection of money and happiness; the difference between momentary happiness and general life satisfaction; and the link between meaningful work, financial success and happiness. This post covers the first of those topics--the intersection between money and happiness.


A truism of our culture is that money can’t buy happiness. We tell kids the myth of King Midas who asks god Dionysus for everything he touches to become gold, to illuminate this. Dionysus grants the King’s wish and Midas quickly finds that his remarkable ability to create wealth interferes with his ability to eat, drink, or touch those he loves. Everything, and everyone, he touches becomes cold gold.

Midas’ wealth is a curse and it is not until Dionysus intervenes and tells Midas to rinse in the river Paktolos, that his cursed touch is reversed. The warning is straightforward, money won’t buy a happy life. Indeed, in a research paper, scientists Kathleen Vos and Roy Baumeister suggest that boosting happiness is not the purpose of money. Rather, they say, the purpose of money is to solve problems and reduce suffering.

Yet, in a recent New York Times article, reporters and anthropologists detailed the lives of people living fulltime in their cars due to mounting debt, bad credit, and other systemic issues. For such people, money would likely not only reduce their suffering but also introduce moments of happiness, depending on how they used it (indeed, an experiment testing unconditional cash transfers, found a single cash transfer of CAD$7,500 reduced homelessness and increased net social savings).

As a leader once told me, the answer is rarely ‘either, or’. It’s usually ‘both, and’…. In this case, it is not either money buys happiness or solves problems, rather the answer is somewhere across all outcomes: how you use money could bring momentary happiness, how you use money could reduce suffering, and how you use money could help in the pursuit of goals.


Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson in their 2010 paper, If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably aren’t Spending it Right, say money could drive happiness if it’s used for the right thing. They cover eight ways to use money to drive moments of happiness. I’ll focus on four I found interesting:

1. Buy more experiences: 17th century scientist Blaise Pascal noted, “However happy a man may be, he will soon be discontented and wretched, if he be not diverted and occupied by some passion or pursuit which prevents weariness from overcoming him. Without amusement there is no joy; with amusement there is no sadness.”

More recently, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow buttresses this point. Happiness arises when we are fully engaged in meaningful effort and focused on the present. Dissatisfaction arises when our minds wander away.

Dunn et. al’s first suggestion is that we use money to buy more experiences, and that we focus entirely during those experiences, practicing being in the moment to boost the pleasure we get from the experience.

On a recent hike in the Smoky Mountains, our guide encouraged us to see the colors and textures in one spot, zooming from taking in the majesty of the mountains to the intricacy of a single leaf on the path, as a way of training our minds to remain grounded and satiated in the present. So invest in experiences, but more importantly, remain present during those experiences.

2. Use money to benefit others: Dunn, Aknin, and Norton (2008) asked a representative sample of Americans to rate their happiness and report how much money they spent in a month. They found that people who spent more on prosocial outcomes (giving to friends, relatives, charities) tended to report being happier, regardless of income. Other research suggests we seem to suffer from an affective forecasting error when it comes to predicting our own happiness.

We think we’ll be happier spending on ourselves compared to spending on others, but (if the research is to be believed), the reverse is true – we get immensely more pleasure out of spending on others, partly because it helps us (and others) see ourselves as good people.

3. Buy many small purchases instead of a few big ones: We’ve all heard about expensive lattes and avocado toast brunches stopping millennials from purchasing houses. The uproar after that statement went viral pointed to student debt, inflation, and a convulsing global economy as reasons fewer millennials are purchasing houses.

However, research actually backs up purchasing that daily latte if it makes you happy.
Dunn et al. note that across different domains, happiness is related to the frequency of positive experiences, rather than the intensity of those experiences. Basically, having more moments of mild happiness drives greater happiness than having a few moments of intense happiness.

Part of the reason for this is our impressive ability to adapt. Whether winning the lottery or losing a limb, research suggests we adapt to new circumstances more easily than we expect to. You might get as much happiness out of a small daily latte that brings you just that right amount of satisfaction, or a weekly walk with a good friend, as you would on a long vacation abroad. A good friend who works as a therapist recommends having something to look forward to every week, as anticipation can also boost happiness (she also says people who work from home should specifically have something social to look forward to every week, to help mitigate feelings of isolation).

4. Pay close attention to the happiness of others (contagion matters): Dunn et al. suggest that people who have the ability to enjoy the small, minutiae of life tend to be happier than those who don’t. I recently sent (spammed) my friends and family with links to this heartwarming documentary on a club for Dull Men, which is a collective of men fascinated by clouds, post boxes, bricks (!), and other random minutiae of daily life. It’s an absolute joy to life with someone who finds pleasure in the simplest things, partly because we tend to be influenced by the emotional experiences of people around us.

In a popular (infamous) experiment on Facebook, researchers found that people who were exposed to less positive content in their feeds were more likely to use negative words in subsequent status updates. Basically, our friends’ emotions can influence our own moods. Dunn et. al therefore suggest using reviews to guide your purchases, as the wisdom of the herd can give you a glimpse into how happy you would feel if you purchased that particular good or activity.

I do think paying too much attention to what other people purchase can drive irreverent spending (who hasn’t been swayed by fake 5-star reviews on social media?), so it’s likely best to stick to the intent of the point here: pay attention to what makes the people around you happy and see how you can support them in small, healthy ways. Find people who find pleasure in the same things that make you happy, and expand your circles to include them.


While the fleeting nature of happiness is a condition of life philosophers, researchers, gurus and statesmen have discussed for centuries, we can increase (and indeed, purchase) the frequency of happy moments we experience every day.

I’m still interested in any research (and anecdotes) exploring the links between happiness, success and meaningful work. If you have anything interesting (thoughts, papers, quotes from ancient philosophers) in this domain, feel free to drop me a note.

Note: Pete's story is paraphrased (quite liberally) from him.