Can money buy happiness? Lessons from Aristotle


Ahh, the age-old question: can money buy happiness?

People have been thinking about this issue for thousands of years. For example, consider this quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle:

“The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” 

This statement from Aristotle is endlessly insightful. Pondering it deeply will reveal your deepest desires.

Sound like a bunch of philosophical hogwash? Well, stay tuned, because in this post I will explain how this simple quote by Aristotle is key to understanding your relationship to money as well as your highest values.

One might upon first blush think that money is intrinsically valuable. That is, one might think it is inherently good to have more money and that one should always, by definition, seek more of it.

But suppose you have a million dollar bills and every human on the planet disappeared tomorrow. Would that money have any value? Absolutely not. The only thing it’d be good for is fuel for the fire.

That’s because the value of money is only in what it’s good for. It allows us to exchange goods from other humans. But if there were no other humans, “money” wouldn’t have any value.

As philosophers would say, money does not have inherent value but rather purely extrinsic value.

In contrast, happiness is an example of something with intrinsic value. It is always good to have more happiness because happiness is something with intrinsic value.

So going back to money, Aristotle’s quote is rightly pointing out that building up wealth by itself isn’t intrinsically valuable. Rather, it is only in virtue of what that wealth affords us is wealth valuable.

And what is the value of wealth? Because of its power to purchase housing, wealth is valuable because shelter from the elements brings us happiness. Because of its power to purchase food, wealth is valuable because not having food makes us unhappy.

And so on. The entirety of wealth’s value is wrapped up in what we can do with wealth. But wealth in and of itself does not have value.

Well, you might be thinking, so what? What’s so profound about that insight?

Because having such an idea in mind allows us to consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose you never had to worry about money ever again. You’d always have enough of it to do whatever it is you wanted to do.

Would you continue to work so hard to gain more of it? Maybe. Perhaps you get a thrill out of the challenge of beating the stock market. But most of us probably wouldn’t continue working our corporate jobs.

Most of us would probably continue to engage in some form of productive work. But we wouldn’t be compelled to do it. The work would be intrinsically valuable to us. Perhaps you have always wanted to write a novel but never had the time with all your work obligations.

If you never had to worry about money, you could write that novel. This would be an enormous amount of work (I speak from experience), and you’d have many days of frustration. But real writers would find this sort of work deeply satisfying and would happily toil away in front of their keyboards.

The same principle applies to everything else, from art to gardening to knitting to lifting weights. And perhaps it also applies to making money. But the key is the money-making itself wouldn’t have value. Beating the market would have value. Speculating would have value. Managing a real estate empire would have value.

The activities involved in making money would have value. But making money would not have value because it’s already been determined that you have all the money you could ever have, so making more of it would be immaterial.

So when Aristotle says, “wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else,” it is always a useful exercise to consider why we are so interested in pursuing more wealth.

For many folks, it is simply a means to having more security and less stress about putting a roof over their head and food on the table. For some, it’s a means to travel more. For some, it might be a way to seek status or make oneself attractive.

Whatever the reason, Aristotle’s point is that money merely has instrumental value i.e. it is merely an instrument to be used for the sake of some other thing e.g. happiness. 

For most of us, having more money would very much make us happy. But not because possessing more 1’s and 0’s in a digital bank account is inherently valuable. It’s because that digital currency can be used to ease our stresses about funding our creature comforts and pursuing our interests. 

So ask yourself, if you had all the money in the world, what would you do with all your time if you no longer were compelled to make money? Knowing the answer to that question is more important than you think because it teases out precisely what our deepest values are. 


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