Monday, August 24, 2009

My Mom: A Guide to Happiness

I was just reading an interesting article on money and happiness. It talked about how the common wisdom has always been that money cannot buy happiness, but how now, according to a couple of researchers, that in fact, if used correctly, money can indeed buy happiness.

The main difference was this: If people buy “stuff,” from fancy cars and watches to bigger homes, ultimately they are not much if any happier. But those who give money away — to charities or to other people, or spend it on experiences, like vacations or even a bar crawl with friends — they are actually, yes, happier.

This information confirmed something I always thought — that money can contribute to happiness if it buys you experiences like education, travel, time with friends and, more powerfully, freedom, particularly from a lousy job.

It also immediately made me think of my mom.

Just the other day she was sitting on the couch watching the news when she heard that the lottery had reached $200 million. Her face always lights up at the thought of buying a ticket and actually winning.

“I’d love to win the lottery,” she said. “God, wouldn’t that be fantastic? Why don’t you buy a ticket?”

I always turn all grumbly and say, “No way. That’s just throwing your money away.”

And mostly it is a waste, considering the odds of actually winning the thing, or any portion of it. But sometimes she gives in to fantasy (although, yes, there is the minute chance she could win) and contemplates what she’d do with all that money.

“Of course, the government would take half,” she went on, deciding what she’d do with $100 million. At this point, because I’ve heard this before, I get a little annoyed because even though this money does not exist, I know what she’ll say.

“I’d love to give it away. I’d give at least million to each of my nieces and nephews and my sister. And all my charities….”

She relishes the fantasy with such enthusiasm I wonder how I can possibly be related to her. But then I’m glad to see some common sense surface: “I’d keep about $30 million. That’s all I’d need.”

At that point, I realize even $30 million is way more than she’d need, this woman who these days is so down to earth it pains her to even buy a new shirt without at least throwing one away.

But then I realize, she’s not thinking of possessions at all, or hardly. She’d probably make her home and property into a sanctuary for homeless animals, and the money would free her from the worry of food and vet bills. She could even hire workers to tend to the menagerie.

She’d probably spend some on travel and taking friends out to dinner, maybe fix her Jeep’s air conditioning or possibly even buy a new car, but nothing fancy, just something safe and sturdy to get her around if her old Jeep gives out.

I have come to realize that any slight irritation that arises within me when I hear her talk of all this sharing and giving so much away is really an awakening of my own fear of scarcity.

Though I’m far from a materialistic status seeker (thanks to my family), I admit, my first thought is not to give away to others (other than those closest to me, of course) but to hoard. To make sure I’ve always got enough money to be comfortable, to travel, to leave a bad job, to have the freedom to do what I want.

So while I’m thinking I can hold my head up and say, "See? I’m honorable, I don’t want a Gucci watch or Ferrari, a mansion or Chanel bag. I want experiences," I realize I have to take a cue from my mom and think even more of sharing the wealth.

I also realize that's something you can do right now. Not “one day” if you win the lottery. I don’t have a lot of extra money, but I bought lunch for a friend recently and it felt great.

Of course I’m still far from being where my mother is.

I used to tease her when my cousin and his wife and kids would stop by and she would offer them things as they got ready to leave. Nothing fancy, just what she had around.

“Do you want to take some bananas?” she’d say, pointing to a few sitting in a bowl. Or she might pick up a bag of chips and say, “Here, take these.”

At the time I’d think she was silly, knowing full well my cousin could easily afford to buy his own chips. But that was not the point. And now I just think she’s amazing. She just loves to give. And I know, without any doubt, I could count on her to literally give me the shirt off her back whether I needed it or not.

More important, I realize it’s a rare person who is so giving and with such enthusiasm. I’m lucky to have her as a role model.

And I didn’t really need to read that story about how money really can buy happiness. My mother already taught me.

If you want, see the story here:


Anonymous said...

Funny thing, my husband was just talking about this on the weekend; must have read the same piece. I agree -- it's the experience that makes us happy. When I think about times I'd list as the "happiest" in my life, they always involve very special people I've cherished, doing memorable things (not necessarily big things) together.

Only the Half of It said...

It's true. It really is the little things. Why don't we learn that?! We are such a consumer nation.
My cousin who reads this was quite pleased that my mother was so enthusiastic about giving her and her siblings a million, though! :-)

Susan said...


You always manage to make me bleary-eyed with your lovingly crafted stories. I truly look forward to every post. Can't wait for the book!

BTW, I forwarded your link to Bill's computer last night so I could read your post before leaving the office but never got around to it. He read it this morning and was so moved he posted it to his FaceBook page. He said, and I'm quoting him, "Ellen writes like a female Mitch Albom," which obviously is intended as the highest praise.

Sharon said...

I've always thought that the fun in having money would be the sharing. I have all kinds of plans for sharing when I win the lottery...

Only the Half of It said...

Susan: You guys are toooo good to me! Thanks to Bill for "following" me. :-)

Sharon: Good woman! I don't struggle with giving generously to those I love, but it's giving generously to those more tangential to me. I'd seriously worry if gave large sums to someone or an org with "expectations" (ie, that they would use the money well), I'd be disappointed. But I guess you have to make your best judgment and let go.

alysyn said...

That was beautiful.Simply, beautiful.