You Can't Buy Happiness


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Some months ago, I was shopping in a new chain store in town when I looked up and saw the sign above on the wall. For days, I kept thinking about that sign and what it meant. It bothered me so much that I eventually went back to the store and took a picture of it.

We’ve all been told “You can’t buy happiness,” the same as we’ve been told “You can’t take it with you” when you die (tell that to King Tut and other Egyptian kings who tried). And although we’ve all heard the sayings, we still fall victim to marketing that preys on our desire to be happier. I am reminded of all the commercials that tell us how happy we will be if we just bought this or that product, whether it be a new car or a soda pop. Consider the many commercials for a certain soda that declares that you will finally find happiness if you drink their sugary sweet elixir, despite the known negative effects on overall health that can lead to tooth decay, diabetes, obesity, and a host of other related well-being-eroding illnesses that can ultimately lead to depression and death. I can’t tell you how often I have seen people in obvious poor health at a grocery store loading up a shopping cart with cases and cases of soda pop. Contrary to the promise of finding happiness, they didn’t look happy to me. In fact, they looked downright sick.

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I’m sure you can think of plenty of commercials that play on our desire to be happy. I’ve fallen for them myself. I’m ashamed to say I’m a little obsessive when it comes to men’s watches. All my life, I’ve seen images in magazines of famous good-looking men showing off their uber-expensive wristwatch. For me, a nice watch is a symbol of success and, therefore, of obtaining happiness. I collect watches that I never wear, thinking If I only had that watch I’d finally be happy. Those watches sit unworn in a dusty display box. I’m even more ashamed to say that just last week I bought another watch display box that can hold sixteen more watches. Up until a few years ago, I had the same obsession with martini’s and martini glasses. My wife always ribbed me because I didn’t even like the taste of a martini, but everywhere I looked was the message that successful men drink martinis (think James Bond). I thought I was smarter than to be duped so easily by mass media and commercials.

What does that say about me?

What does that say about you?

Along the same lines are the commercials that promise love in your life if only you buy their product. I bet you can imagine a few right now. What comes to my mind are the commercials that promise that your life will be full of love if you buy their car like the one below.

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When I was a boy growing up in the 1960s, the average size of a new family home was around 1,500 sq. ft. That’s roughly 375 sq. ft. per person for a family of four. (See advertisement for new homes in the 1960s below.) Today, the average size is more like 2,000 sq. ft., around 500 sq. ft. per person. In contrast, there’s a subdivision on the north side of our small Midwest town where contractors build McMansions around man-made ponds. No trees separate the huge homes with their huge lawns. For two years, my daughter and I have watched as one particularly enormous house has gone up. The place must be over 8,000 square feet. I know from talking to a realtor friend that the house is being built for a retired older couple with no children. That’s 4,000 square feet per occupant. Clearly, they have bought into the notion that more and bigger brings joy. But I can’t help but wonder how happy will they be paying taxes on the property for the rest of their lives and paying an estimated $1,000 a month to heat it during the coldest winter months? Will having more truly make them happy?

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The following quotes are from my recent inspirational pocketbook, A New Day (2020). The chapter “Less is More” is about how happiness and wholeness can never be found by buying things. Just the opposite is true: Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need. (Click on cover image below to go to

A New DayI’m always dismayed at how many people pay for storage units to store the things they obviously can live without. Month after month, year after year, they pay thousands of dollars to store the overflow and detritus of their consumerist lives. I once paid $7,000 over five years for a storage unit that was crammed full of things I thought I couldn’t live without. There were dozens of boxes of books I had not opened in a decade. One day, I finally tossed it all out, but the silly manager of the storage unit didn’t refund all the money I had paid him over the years. Think of what I could have done with all that money. Many of us are in the same boat. Owning things will never make you happy.

Some time ago, my wife decided that we had too much stuff. She started to systematically downsize our household possessions, donating anything we hadn’t used in over a year or which did not bring us joy to own. “What about this?” she asked, holding up some object. “What about that?” she said, pointing to another. I resisted at first, even to the suggestion of discarding or donating things I hadn’t used in years, like my dust-covered Swiss fondue pot (Oh, the fond memories of the 1970s). I culled my CD and DVD collections (but not my Tony Orlando & Dawn and The Partridge Family albums; I’m keeping those!), the number of books on shelves; the number of neck ties hanging in my closet (there were over 100). The result of my wife’s efforts is that our lives are less cluttered and happier. From the experience, I understand why monks and nuns take vows of poverty. Their lives are not impoverished for lack of things. To the contrary!

There are many addictions. Always wanting more is one of them. Buying things will never make you happy for long.

The store with the giant “You really can buy happiness” sign didn’t last for long. Like thousands of other stores and restaurants, it closed its doors during the Covid-19 pandemic.


JSDr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion where he teaches a global online course called “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” He is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, a pocketbook of meditations to inspire love, compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, wellbeing, and peace. He is currently working on a book about his discovery of Thomas Merton’s relics in the spring of 2015.

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