Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: Mastering Happiness Economics

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

When the mainstream physician audience catches wind of a FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) breathing article that points out why most doctors aren’t rich (like this one), the teeth come out.  People start sippin’ the hatorade and say things like, “Great philosophy on savings until you squirrel away everything and die of cancer at 40 anyway, having enjoyed no worldly offerings.

Sometimes people love using a blunt instrument.  Yet, this person is implying that a high savings rate will inevitably lead to regret when we die young.  You only live once, they say!

I agree that there must be a balance between our current happiness and our savings rate (I recommend The 10% Rule as a tool to find that balance).  But it isn’t this simple.

The relationship between money and happiness is complicated.  And that is exactly what we are going to examine in this post.

Happiness Economics: What make us happy?

For years, economists believed that humans generally made choices based on their optimal utility.  However, as our understanding advanced on how people make choices, it became obvious this simply wasn’t true.  From this, the field of happiness economics (or the economics of happiness) was produced.

This explains why people smoke when they know that they shouldn’t, exercise too little, and eat too much.  It is not that people don’t see the lack of utility in these things. They simply think the immediate satisfaction or pleasure they will receive is worth the cost.  Until it isn’t anymore.

This same mentality explains why people spend too much and save too little for their future. It explains why people buy cars, homes, and designer gadgets that they will later regret.  It also explains why 25% of physicians who are 60 years old do not have $1 million in net worth despite earning millions of dollars during their medical careers.

We are often far too short-sited in our pleasure seeking ways.

Yet, we are not doomed.

Studies have shown that, upon careful thought and consideration, we can realize what truly brings us long-term sustained satisfaction.  Using tools that can help us realize our goals in life, we can make better choices.

We must first realize our propensity towards irrational decisions.  Then, we must follow a carefully crafted plan to keep us on track.

Income and Happiness

The Physician Philosopher BookIn the 1970’s, Richard Easterlin produced a study showing that while some countries GDP (i.e. wealth) increased over certain time periods, their levels of happiness did not increase to the same extent as their respective wealth expansion. This produced what is now called the Easterlin paradox, which suggests that happiness does increase with increasing income, but only to an extent.

We have discussed this idea before on this site (that a physician’s income is not directly linked to their happiness).  The gist of this discussion is that once your basic needs are taken care of (food, water, shelter, clothing, etc) any increase in income is likely to be met with proportionally smaller increases in happiness. It is not a linear relationship.

Given the income that most physicians have, we are well above what is required to take care of our basic needs.  For this reason, increases in pay for most physicians are unlikely to lead to increasing levels of happiness.

One of the biggest reasons for this is that humans adapt quickly.

While a raise may seem like a great thing for a moment, you will likely be back to your current state of happiness in a matter of weeks or months.  If you don’t believe me, reflect back on your transition from being a resident to an attending salary and how quickly your life and expectations adjusted.

The answer to increasing happiness is not usually getting paid more.

What about spending?

If increasing income does not produce happiness, wouldn’t you expect that spending money has a similar relationship (i.e. wouldn’t it follow that more money spent does not equate with increasing happiness)?

The answer here is a bit more nuanced.

Spending money does make us happy.  However, there is a catch.  We must spend money on the right things.

For example, many of us have experienced what it is like to buy a new house, a new car, or a fancy gadget… just to find out a few months down the road that it didn’t come close to sustaining the happiness that we thought it would.

Again, humans adapt. We get used to the things we accumulate.

If you need proof of this, walk around your house and take inventory of all of the things you have purchased.  Think back on how you thought that kitchen table, new TV, or piece of furniture was going to help you live better in that space.  Looking back, have you gotten used to it?  Or does it still provide the same amount of satisfaction it did when you bought it?

So, if spending money on “stuff” isn’t the answer – what can we spend money on to produce happiness?  The answer, of course, is spending money on other people and on experiences.

This is why most of the discretionary money that my wife and I spend goes towards tithing at our church, vacations and meals with friends and family, and on things we are passionate about.  Studies have shown that this kind of spending will maximize our sustained satisfaction and happiness.

Take Home

Talking about early financial independence and saving money can get some people heated, because they feel that we all must be missing out on the “Good life” while we save our money.

Understanding the relationship between money and happiness is challenging. And spending money doesn’t always make us happy.  Our income doesn’t always correlate either.

Take this time to inventory your spending.  Are you wasting money on things that you shouldn’t?  Do you become angry when other people mention saving money?

Learn to create an intentional life and to spend money on things that matter.  Once you harness these philosophical principles of financial independence, you’ll find that happiness you’ve been looking for.  Finding contentment isn’t as hard as you think.

What do you think? Do you spend intentionally?  Do you wish that you had a larger income?  Would that make you happy?  Leave a comment below.



  1. Xrayvsn

    Nice points TPP (by the way you scooped me on the post title, actually have that title jotted down in my notes for a future post (which I still plan on doing but it is based on another topic so I think I’m ok 🙂 ).

    I have read studies that show that the ideal income level is 90k/yr or so and that anything above that barely registers a blip on the radar of happiness for reasons you pointed out.

    Now does that mean if I had the opportunity to have a million dollar a year lifestyle I would say no because of this study? Not at all. I do think it would allow me to enjoy life more than being on a 90k/yr salary but it would indeed not be a linear one to one correlate. So unless it falls in your lap it would not make much sense to kill/deny yourself so much to reach that level.

  2. Wealthy Doc

    Reaching FI has given me more options on how to structure my day and life.

    I’m starting to spend more time on the things that I truly love to do.
    I made a “bliss list.” Now I’m beginning to schedule those things that bring me joy onto my schedule.

    It is pretty simple but I find if I do more of what I like, I’m happier. Shouldn’t have taken me decades to figure this out, but it did.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Yeah, I think I want to start that list as early as possible. I certainly can’t wait til FI to do it.

      That’s the problem with “being outside the matrix”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You might also be interested in…

Budgeting That You Won’t Hate: Backwards Budgeting

Budgeting That You Won’t Hate: Backwards Budgeting

Let’s be real. Most of us hate budgeting. I know that I do. That said, I am a big believer that unintentional plans lead to lots of people ending up broke. What if I told you that there is a way to budget that you won’t hate, and it will accomplish all of your goals automatically? Too good to be true? Read on to find out…

Tips for Moonlighting in Residency: Making Extra Cash

Tips for Moonlighting in Residency: Making Extra Cash

As a PGY-4 in my anesthesiology residency, I easily doubled my salary by moonlighting in residency. Many opportunities exist for moonlighting, and the pay usually ranges from $60/hour to $150/hour depending on the nature of the call.  Today, let's hammer out the...

Time is money, but money can’t buy time

Time is money, but money can’t buy time

Please, tell me I am not the only one who thinks like this?  My monetary mindset currently revolves around our biggest (current) financial goal: Paying off our student loans. I hope that some day I can truly learn that Time is Money and that money is a means to an end. It’s not an end in itself.

Are you ready to live a life you love?