The Cost of Happiness

By Alex Cohen

It is a common belief that the more money you have, the happier you will be. We are surrounded by ads for the lottery, infomercials on how to get rich quick, videos of people on their yachts, in their sports cars, and in their mansions, all looking like they don’t have a care in the world.

In this age of Millennials, young adults have seen people get rich from a single idea, app or invention. Young girls admire influencers like the Kardashians, and others who made it to the top via social media. They assume these celebrities don’t have to work 9 to 5 to pay their bills or take care of themselves and have everything they ever wanted at their fingertips. But in reality—when you pull up the veil—there is so much more hiding behind their success. There is infidelity, crime, abuse, addiction, divorce, child custody battles, and family discord, to name a few.

Some say the larger the wealth, the larger the burden. Studies have shown that people who have less or just enough to live comfortably while still having a little left over to help their families or church in times of need are far happier than the wealthy and mega wealthy. That is not to say that the rich are all unhappy. The wealthy claim to be more “satisfied” with their lives, but their burdens are just different.

Having been working poor once myself, then a single mother with “just enough,” and then marrying an independently wealthy man, I know firsthand what the differences are.

Was I happier when I had less? Yes and no.

When I was younger, I knew how much I had to spend—nothing—unless I worked for it. There was no allowance because there was not much left after my parents paid bills. At 14, I applied for my working papers and my career as the peanut counter girl in Woolworth’s soon began.  I worked my way up to price gun girl and then on to cashier. I never missed a day of work in all the time I had that job, always showing up on time and presentable. Every week when I received my paycheck, which was about $3.10 an hour, I would give my parents $25 to help with my part and I would save the rest for something I might need later. During my senior year of high school, I worked for the church rectory as a receptionist and made close to $5 an hour every day after school. While it was only a few hours a day, it allowed me to do homework and study when the workday was slow.

I was happy then. Life was good, I had genuine friends, my family was still intact, I was fairly popular and had boyfriends (only one at a time), my grades were very good, and my health was great. I didn’t envy anyone because we were all in the same boat. But there was one family on the block that thought they were the richest and most sophisticated. They may have had a little more money than the rest of us and a fancy place to go for the summer, but they were poor at heart and never really happy—not for themselves or for others.  That was my first experience with people who had more but were less happy.

Aside from this family, the working poor that I grew up with always donated what they could to their church or to neighborhood families in need—and they did it happily. I wish I could say that all the wealthy are generous as well, but my experience on this side shows me quite the opposite. Many believe that “it’s other peoples’ or the government’s responsibility.”  Again, not all wealthy people believe this, otherwise university and hospital buildings would be nameless. My point is generosity is generosity no matter how much or little you have. Our parents taught us this life lesson when we were young.

But these days, how many kids do you know who started working the minute they could and did not do it because they expected to become rich? That was what we did. We worked hard, made money and went to college to get a degree in the career of our choice. Of course, college is not necessarily the answer for everyone. Just look at Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; both dropped out and changed the world as we know it. But not everyone has the skillset and intelligence to make that happen. Very few have made it rich quick by using social media and even less have made it by coming up with an app or invention, but so many are out there trying and failing. While failing is a part of learning, some young people have forgotten the concept of real work and giving back to their communities. This is where insecurity, frustration and disappointment set in. Then anxiety, then a state of depression where prescription drugs like Xanax rule.

Our society is failing to look beyond itself. We have become a nation of young adults who are finding it hard to imagine having to work for a living and harder still needing to give back. They are taking jobs in start-ups hoping to find “the one” that makes it big. They are living with their parents because the “perfect job” for them has not come along.

So here we are stuck among the poor, the working poor, the young, and the wealthy. Who are the happiest? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that money complicates things. “With much wealth comes much responsibility” not only for me, my family and closest friends, but for my soul as well.

I started the Foundation because we had so much and I wanted to give back. Both my husband and I believe it is our responsibility to be socially conscious and use our money to make things better for those in need. We have found it to be very rewarding and continue to increase our giving over time because we believe that our children do not need all of this when we are gone. We would rather make a difference while we are still on this earth.

Wealth comes with complications. For me, it has taken many forms. For one, friendships are tested. I know many people who wouldn’t even glance in my direction if it weren’t for my wealth or my marriage to my husband.  My closest friends have been in my life forever and none of them are wealthy. They loved me then and they love me now. Not much has changed, except now I can afford better food and trips!

Another complication of wealth is that I must present myself a certain way, when most of the time I want to walk around in my pajamas and eat right out of the pot I cook in. Growing up, the only social events were baby and wedding showers, and the occasional block party—all super fun and easy. Now it takes effort to get ready for just a dinner party. I get such anxiety just thinking about what I am going to wear to make sure I am presentable—not so much fun or easy.

You are probably reading this and saying to yourself, “Who is she to complain about anything? She can have anything she ever wanted and has no reason to complain.”  To be clear, I am not complaining. I am just trying to share an inside look into my life as a person with wealth who did not grow up with it, showing you two sides of the coin. Wealth does not automatically bring happiness. Happiness comes from within no matter how little or how much you have.

One thing is undeniable. The wealthy can afford the best medical care there is out there, but the truth remains that no matter how much money you have you cannot cheat illness or death. When it’s your time, it’s your time, no matter how much you are worth.

So, are the rich happier than the poor?  I don’t have the answer to that but what I can say is it’s definitely more complicated.  I am happy—not because I have money—but because I have a happy marriage, great kids, a healthy family, wonderful friends, a great outlook on life, and a desire to give back. None of this has a price tag.

“Money can’t buy you happiness,” but gratitude can.