Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Who Says Money Can’t Buy Happiness?

August 21 2009 by Joe Queenan


The annihilation of the nation’s wealth has led to a tsunami of reassuring reports that money isn’t that important after all. This Polyannaish, don’t-worry-be-happy attitude is surreptitiously being foisted onto the nation’s psyche by a phalanx of alarmingly perky cheerleaders. Newspapers have regularly run features reminding readers that as long as they have their health, they have nothing to complain about. Columnists assert that trying times bring out the best in us. The otherwise sagacious Ben Stein, in his always illuminating New York Times column, reminded readers that they were still the same people today that they were yesterday, that losing 40 percent of their life’s savings did not diminish their value as human beings. Obviously, this is a lot easier to say when you have as much money as Ben Stein.

The latest effort to reassure the public comes from New York Life, whose money management division has begun sending investors a peppy newsletter called Living Now. The thrust is that investors should stop obsessing about money, and instead focus on personal happiness. Splashed across the top of the inaugural edition, in zippy green letters, is the profundity, “For thousand of years, big thinkers from Aristotle (‘happiness belongs to the self-sufficient’) to Charlie Brown (‘happiness is a warm puppy’) have been trying to define happiness.”

The article goes on to say, “Money, it turns out, is actually less important than we might think. A ‘Top 10’ list from researchers at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein cites actions such as ‘exercise regularly,’ ‘devote time and effort to closer relationships’ and ‘don’t pursue happiness for its own sake, enjoy the moment,’ as more important.” Living Now also reports that happiness is rooted in our genetic makeup, that according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh, “people who don’t worry excessively and are sociable and conscientious tend to be happier.” Rolling out the heavy artillery, the newsletter quotes U.S. News & World Report, which said, “In the end, happiness depends significantly on attitude.” Well, if U.S. News says so, then it must be true.

Frankly, I think New York Life may need to run its numbers again. Ever since the stock market collapsed, I have gone out of my way to exercise regularly and build closer relationships with friends. One preferred exercise is to visit my money manager, with whom I have a close relationship, and ask, “What happened to my money?” Interestingly, he doesn’t seem terribly happy these days, either. Sometimes, when we get together, we both seem downright sad, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. If the research compiled by Living Now is correct, we should easily be able to slough off all the misery we are experiencing. But so far this has not happened. No matter how many friendships I strengthen, and no matter how many laps I swim around the YMCA pool, I still wish I had my money back.

In the end, I am willing to accept that happiness depends a lot on one’s attitude. But I can distinctly recall that my attitude was a whole lot cheerier two years ago, before my portfolio took a 40 percent hit. And my attitude will almost certainly improve once I am made whole. The idea that a company that manages people’s retirement money is actually encouraging investors to stop obsessing about their finances and concentrate on personal happiness is thus very disconcerting. It makes me worry that the folks managing the money may be concentrating more on their friendships and on running minimarathons than on managing their clients’ money.

It has been said that one should never fly in an airplane piloted by someone who believes in an afterlife. Similarly, one should never entrust one’s nest egg to a money manager who believes that regular exercise and maintaining social relationships are more important than wealth. I don’t care what researchers at the University of Edinburgh say; when it comes to happiness, you just can’t beat wealth. And believe me, I’m working from personal experience.