Money and happiness need a divorce

Personal finance blogger Zach Holz says many mistakenly believe their problems would be solved if they were rich

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Divorce is one of the best inventions that humanity has ever created. Some couples are simply toxic. They bicker or constantly cause problems for the people around them, and for everyone's sake, they need a drastic measure to make the world a better place, free of their squabbles. That drastic measure is divorce.

But it's not only warring couples that need to be separated; our society also needs to rend asunder two things that are far too intertwined; two concepts whose relationship creates massive problems throughout the world. Happiness and money need to be split up.

People with far fewer possessions still have a great deal of happiness and the wealthy have no monopoly on smiles.

Our perception of their inter-relatedness runs toxically deep. I'll bet everyone around you has thought at multiple times in their life, 'I'd be happier if I had X amount of money' or 'I'd be so happy if I could afford X'. It's not our fault that we've all been conditioned to feel that way.  Almost every advertisement you see reinforces that idea; that connection between spending money and being happy. Over time, that bombardment of materialistic propaganda wins over. It's reinforced by biology because our brains reward us with a big, but temporary, hit of dopamine when we buy new stuff.  It's that feeling of excitement you get when you have a shiny new toy.

And the more you buy, the more often you get that dopamine spike. We even have a term for it -- "retail therapy" -- where we make ourselves happy by buying things. The problem is that this form of happiness quickly fades, and like any addict, we need that hit again. So we buy more and more things, which can cause us to go into debt. It also fills the oceans with plastic and the air with pollution - a byproduct of the creation of all that stuff we have to buy to get our dopamine hits. The relationship between money and happiness is leaving us massively in debt and wrecking the only planet we have to call home.

That's why I'm calling on money and happiness to get a divorce, and I have a great way for you to help those concepts separate in your mind.  This week, go and do one fun free thing here in the UAE. Local publications, including The National, post lists of dozens of free activities across the Emirates. I've read about free cinema events, free museums, great hiking trails, free art galleries, great events on the beach, bird watching, ladies nights, camel racing, free concerts and performances, yoga classes, and so many more! You could easily do 10 new things this month and not pay a single dirham in the process.

The fact these activities are free and bring us happiness is critical.  The more practice we get at doing fun, free things, the less we will automatically connect happiness with money. Repeated exposure to the reality that happiness doesn't have to come at a financial cost will help overcome years of conditioning, even if it takes time.  And it's totally fine that it takes time to really understand this at a fundamental level, because that just means we will do more fun stuff, be happier, and spend less money in the process.

If it helps, there is lots of science and evidence behind this. Researchers have found that lottery winners are no happier than the rest of the population. Around the world, happiness levels don't go up after you have enough money to safely feed, clothe and house your family. If you've travelled or lived in a third world country, you know that people with far fewer possessions still have a great deal of happiness and that the wealthy have no monopoly on smiles.

It's time for you to split up money and happiness. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Dubai schoolteacher Zach Holz (@HappiestTeach) documents his journey towards financial independence on his personal finance blog The Happiest Teacher

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