How Money Can Make You Happy (It’s Not What You Think)

In their book, The Paradox of Generosity, sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson write of the relationship between money and happiness, saying,

People rightly say that money cannot buy happiness. But money and happiness are still related in a curious way. Happiness can be the result, not of spending more money on oneself, but rather of giving money away to others.

Neuroscientists tell us that when we give, it stimulates the same dopamine release in the brain as when you win a game, eat a really good meal, listen to a favorite song, have sex, or win an award. Generosity causes your body to overflow with feelings of happiness. (If you read that and think, “I’m not so sure,” all I can say is, take it up with the neuroscientists.)

As Christians, we shouldn’t be particularly surprised. Generosity, biblically speaking, isn’t a matter of God hounding us to give because he’s in need of cash. It’s primarily a matter of faithfulness, something God wants for us as much as he wants it from us. He knows generosity is good for us, so he commands it.

Plus, generosity is one of those ways that we are able to mirror God’s activity in the world. Because God is generous, he asks us to be generous. And, as Ronald Rolheiser says, “When you act like God, you get to feel like God.”

If generosity is so good for us, why don’t we do it? The answer—a scarcity mindset. John Mark Comer helpfully explains that a lot of the world operates with a scarcity mindset, meaning they never think there’s enough to go around. Whatever someone else gets, I can’t have. Life is a zero-sum game, so if there’s a winner somewhere, that means there’s also automatically a loser somewhere else. So most of us become pretty good at fighting to be one of the winners. Because there’s a fixed amount of resources in the world, we have to hoard whatever we can get while we can get it. In the end, ironically, this doesn’t just make us blind to the needs of those around us; it also makes us miserable in the process.

But there’s another way, the Bible says, that can lead us to true happiness. It’s the abundance mindset. When we view the world through the lens of abundance, we believe that God has blessed us so greatly that there is always ample to go around. Not only that, but God often says that when we give of what we’ve been given, he promises to actually multiply it. In this mindset, life isn’t a zero-sum game; it’s more like a garden, where new possibilities are always just beneath the surface. People living with this mindset move in the world with gratitude toward God and generosity toward their neighbors. The end result is blessing for others and (as the neuroscientists remind us) joy for us along the way.

In Luke 11, Jesus said, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness” (v. 34 ESV). While this may sound cryptic to us modern readers, it wasn’t cryptic at all for the earliest listeners. As Comer points out, in Jesus’ day, a “healthy eye” meant how you saw the world, with the Greek word for “healthy” implying generosity. You could almost read it as, “When your view of the world is generous, your whole body is full of light, but when your view of the world is stingy, your body is full of darkness.”

In other words, if you’ve got an abundance mindset, you’ll be living a beautifully big life. But if you’ve got a scarcity mindset, you’ll be living a stingy, puny little life.

One of the most upside-down things Jesus ever said was in relation to money: “It is more blessed to give than receive.”  The word “blessed” in Greek literally means “happy.” What if you really believed this?

The scarcity mindset that most of us carry makes us think that it’s happier to buy and possess than to give away and lose. But what if the reason Jesus taught about giving so much was not because he needed it, but because he knew it was the gateway to joy in our lives? Wouldn’t that change how you thought about it?

The abundant life is available to you. It begins by adopting an abundance mindset.