Does money buy happiness? In a May 2022 episode of his podcast “Margins of Error” Harry Enten of CNNcites a 2010 study from Princeton University which says money can buy happiness … but only to a point. A major conclusion of the study suggested that the subjective measure of one’s happiness does not improve significantly after an annual income of $75K. So, having money helps to decrease anxiety, and when acquiring money, saving it, investing it, and spending it, is no longer a major concern in life, we will tend to find greater satisfaction.
Then he interviews Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In his 2021 study using real-time data gathered from tens of thousands of people over a 7-year period across a wide range of incomes, Mr. Killingsworth concludes that happiness does increase as income increases, but proportionately less with each increase.
Speaking with Psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia and chief science officer at a financial technology company that helps people acquire personal loans, he learns that at some point happiness matters as much with the money we already have as with what we do with it; that we are happier when we purchase experiences than when we purchase things; and that we are happier when we spend money to help others than when we spend it on ourselves.
It is safe to say that money is only one of many factors that can contribute to our happiness. Money then is not evil, in and of itself. Rather, scripture tells us it is the love of money that is evil. An excessive love of money can lead to greed, especially when the love of money and material things matters more to us than anything or anyone else. You shouldn’t need three ghosts to come visit you at night to teach you that.
We are likely not among the people the prophet Amos speaks of in the first reading, who “lie upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, eating lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall, improvising to the music of the harp, like David, devising their own accompaniment, drinking wine from bowls and anointing themselves with the best oils …” Affluence, wealth, prosperity, privilege … most of us only encounter these things on TV or read about in the tabloids. Instead, we say our own resources are modest. Some luxuries may pass for necessities now—quality clothing, shoes, furniture, comfortable homes, functional vehicles, convenient electronics—mobile phones, digital cameras, laptops. And occasionally we might have pocket change for a snack or the movies.
Yet compared to the rest of the world we are much richer. We make up less than 10% of the world’s population but use up two-thirds of the world’s resources. We produce more garbage and pollution than any other nation. And whenever we need anything, we need only drive up to the nearest convenience store, pick from shelves laden with multiple options, swipe some plastic, and go on with our lives … at least until the next aching need rears its ugly head and screams to be fed.
The rich man in today’s gospel parable was no monster. Like most of us, he enjoyed the legitimate conveniences of his lifestyle, eating, drinking, entertaining himself as his resources allowed. He did not break any laws; he inflicted no harm. He lived his life in relative comfort, attentive to the needs of his family, careful to pay his taxes, and justly compensate his servants. His fault, Jesus points out, was the glaring sin of omission. While he feasted each day, a poor beggar sat outside his door. He wasn’t blind but the rich man never noticed Lazarus until it was too late, not until he was in unspeakable torment, and he could do nothing more to unseal his own fate. In life, he had done absolutely nothing to assist his neighbor in his pain.
In the relative comfort of our lives, we might encounter people in greater need than ourselves. We have even lent a helping hand or shared a couple of bucks from our meager resources. But because the poor are seldom to be found sitting outside our doors, their suffering rarely ever enters our consciousness. Their painful existence only comes into focus when we read the newspapers or watch TV. Usually, they are far away, and their pain is far from our comfort. We feel guilty when we receive appeals in the mail from charitable groups. So, we write a check, and the discomfort subsides until the next uncomfortable image crosses our gaze.
Like the rich man we run the danger of missing the poor who live in our own homes, the needy in our neighborhoods, the destitute among people we meet each day. Since they are like ourselves save for a few minor details, we excuse our negligence and convince ourselves we do all that is right. The truly poor like Lazarus at the rich man’s door seldom highlight their own poverty. They sit in dejection and resignation, often powerless in the midst of the prosperity around them. If they receive anything they are grateful, but they have learned to expect nothing to avoid constant disappointment.
Last Sunday Jesus reminded us that we cannot serve God and money with equal loyalty and dedication. Today he tells us earthly wealth can jeopardize our eternal salvation unless we reach out to others and share with them the bounty of God’s goodness. Hell seems to be a place of torment, possibly because of the burning flames but more likely because its residents are forever cut off from God.
You and I may not be prosperous in the eyes of the world, but the truly poor among us are rarely only poor financially. Many more are spiritually deprived and starving. They long for peace of mind and heart, reconciliation, friendship, healing, and life. We have access to the riches of the spiritual life. Our faith provides us much in the way of comfort, forgiveness, purpose, and eternal life. Are we eager to share these with those who have none? But before we can share God’s blessings, do we gain anything ourselves from blessings that God offers? Are we returning home from Sunday mass still spiritually poor and needy?
The rich man ignored his poor neighbor starving at his door. But he ignored as much the hunger of his own spirit. And would we pay such a message any heed if it was told to us by anyone come back from the dead?
Rolo B Castillo © 2022