For the first time since the field of psychology formally became a science, which was only a century ago, serious attention is being paid to happiness. Previously, the focus was on the causes of unhappiness, and with good reason. Mental disorders inflict enormous misery, and generations of clinicians wanted to find some kind of cure. Psychiatrists and psychologists are still devoted to this aim, but room has been made to ask a fundamental question: Is it possible to find lasting happiness?
The jury is still out, so far as a professional consensus is concerned. One view is that happiness is fairly random and incidental - it comes and goes, without anyone predicting when it will happen. Another view is that happiness needs to be redefined so that people don't chase after a fantasy of constant sunshine and bliss. Our expectations should be reduced, with the aim of a general state of contentment. Finally, there are super-optimists who maintain that the highest level of happiness is possible, but it is attainable only by locating a higher reality and establishing yourself there.
Given these very mixed messages, the vast majority of people ignore psychological theory, using their time and energy to carve out a workable, everyday kind of happiness, while in the back of their minds they fear the catastrophes that may destroy their happiness altogether - poverty, crime, and disease. One reason that the field of "positive psychology" came into being is that this seat-of-the-pants approach to happiness doesn't actually work very well, and it's probably declining as we speak.
This is where a very bad idea enters the picture. It holds that money buys happiness, and the more money you have, the happier you will be. In a sense, capitalism runs on this idea, but I'm not writing to outline the flaws in capitalism. Every economic system generates its own myths and is blind to its own defects if you believe in the system. The real problem with "money buys happiness" is twofold. First, it's not true beyond a very limited point. Having enough money to be comfortable produces more happiness than living with the stress of poverty and want. Beyond this fairly modest state of financial security (not so modest if you were born into a poor country or have an impoverished background in a rich one) money brings more stress than it's worth.
Positive psychologists seem pretty sure about this finding, looking at a broad range of subjects, although of course there are exceptions - rich people who seem exceedingly happy and poor people who seem the same. Even so, if you really care about your happiness more than your bank account, you shouldn't devote your life to the pursuit of wealth, no matter how much our society glorifies being rich and mythologizes the wealthy as if they live in a paradise on earth.
The second reason that "money buys happiness" is such a bad idea is subtler. The pursuit of money prevents you from finding happiness another way. I hold the minority position about happiness, the one that says lasting happiness depends on our state of awareness, and to find the highest state of happiness, you must reach a higher state of consciousness. The same view has been held for centuries by all the world's wisdom traditions, and ironically, now is the best time to test it out. In the past, the average person was helpless in the face of poverty, war, and disease. That's no longer true for millions of people who have enough control over their destiny to pursue happiness rather than simply try to survive.
It would be a shame to waste this golden opportunity by thoughtlessly adhering to such a bad idea as "money buys happiness." From the seed of this idea grows offspring, such as the idea that poverty means that you are an inferior person, a loser, or the idea that winning is everything, since winning implies monetary rewards. Then there's the idea that you can use your money to buy so many glittery toys and distractions that these will constitute happiness, and so on. The truth is that happiness is an inner pursuit that is very different from the pursuit of pleasure or the amassment of a fortune. No one should accept this as a given; it needs to be tested out personally. In the end, the message of the world's wisdom traditions is a call to find out the truth for yourself. It just helps to clear away the underbrush of untruths, and "money buys happiness" is just that.