Money and happiness: A surprising truth

can money buy happiness

Key Points

  • Some of the happiest people are able to save money, providing a safety net and creating peace of mind
  • Spending money can bring immediate gratification, but financial security contributes to long-term wellness
  • Small changes to daily habits can go a long way in improving health, happiness and longevity

Can money really buy happiness? Only to a certain extent, according to a leading expert on the tie between behaviors and well-being. “The effect of financial security has about a three times greater effect on your happiness than consumption,” says Dan Buettner, a New York Times best-selling author, Emmy Award winner and leading wellness expert.

“In other words, if you have an urge to go out and buy some new shoes or a new car, you’re better off taking that money and paying down your mortgage or buying insurance or putting money away for a rainy day,” he says. “That new thing will make you a little happier, but the amount and the duration of that happiness is much shorter than we think — about a few months.”

Buettner has explored the world to find out what the longest-lived people do differently, dubbing regions where people most often live past 100 the “Blue Zones.” In his latest book, The Blue Zones of Happiness, Buettner expanded his research to study the behaviors of the world’s happiest communities.

We asked Buettner to expand on the ties between money and well-being — as well as the connections between behavior and longevity.

Q: What are some other ways that finances can impact our overall happiness and well-being?

A: Financial struggles can cause stress that leads to relationship problems, depression and other negative effects. We found in our research that money buys happiness only to a certain point — basically, the happiest people have incomes that allow them to save enough for a safety net and peace of mind.

Q: Work brings money but also stress — how can we find healthy balance in our 9-to-5 routine?

A: There are many small nudges we can incorporate into our workday to create healthy habits that promote health and longevity, such as:

  • Use a standing desk
  • Schedule walking meetings
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Designate at least 30 minutes to eat each day
  • Try not to eat at your desk all the time
  • Identify healthy lunch spots
  • Eat with someone you enjoy spending time with

Q: Speaking of food — in a nutshell, how can we eat more like those in the Blue Zones?

A: We encourage growing fresh vegetables, but this is often not possible. Luckily, you can find all the quality ingredients you need in any supermarket. Look for beans, nuts and other natural dry goods. Buy fruits and vegetables. Even frozen fruits and vegetables are great; they hold their nutrients longer because they’re picked and immediately frozen. Just remember: Focus on eating a plant-based diet.

Q: In your books, you emphasize the importance of family and community to longevity.

A: Many centenarians do put their families first and keep their aging parents and grandparents near. It is important to know that it does not always need to be family to create these connections. An extremely important aspect of centenarian life is to connect with friends and neighbors. The world’s longest-lived people choose — or were born into — social circles that support healthy behaviors. For example, Okinawans create “moais”— groups of five friends that committed to each other for life.

Q: You talk about “potential maximum life span” in your books — what does that mean?

A: Many people do not realize the long-term effects that unhealthy habits have on their overall life expectancy. When people see the big picture, it sometimes becomes clear that they may need to make changes. You can take the Blue Zones “Vitality Compass” quiz to find out your true current age and get customized recommendations on how to create healthy habits.

Q: Do you think it would be beneficial for more retirees to move to Blue Zones or places like them?

A: I think it would be great if everyone could move to a Blue Zone because they’re such fantastic places but that would be a difficult task. What we are doing is trying to create Blue Zone environments here at home. We’ve gone into many communities throughout the United States and are continuing to expand, working with policymakers and government officials to help create environments that nurture a healthy lifestyle.

Q: For you, what has been the number one takeaway for healthy living from the Blue Zones?

A: There is not a silver bullet when it comes to longevity but more of a “silver buckshot.” We found nine common characteristics in all of the Blue Zones that we believe are the true key to longevity. We call these the “Power 9.”  

The Power 9: Longevity practices in the Blue Zones

Move naturally

The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron or run marathons. Instead, their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it.

Purpose

Why do you wake up in the morning? Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy

Downshift

Stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is associated with every major age-related disease. The world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed that stress.

80% rule

"Hara hachi bu" — the Okinawans say this mantra before meals as a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full.

Plant slant

What is the cornerstone of most centenarian diets? Beans. They typically eat meat — mostly pork — only about five times per month.

Wine at 5:00

Moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers, especially if they share those drinks with friends.

Belong

Attending faith-based services four times per month — no matter the denomination — adds up to 14 years of life expectancy.

Loved ones first

Centenarians put their families first. They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in their children.

Right tribe

The world’s longest-lived people choose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviors.

Find out more

The Ameriprise Confident Retirement® approach can help you achieve financial health — a key aspect of overall wellness. Work with your advisor to discuss how to bring your dreams and goals to life.

Dan Buettner has explored the world to research the habits and lifestyles of centenarians who live in regions he dubbed the Blue Zones. Based on his research, Buettner began implementing Blue Zones Projects across the U.S., improving the health of more than 5 million Americans to date. The best-selling author of several books, Buettner has appeared on The Today Show, Oprah, NBC Nightly News and Good Morning America.

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