Harvard Biz Professor Michael Norton Says Money Makes Us Happy

Harvard Biz Professor Michael Norton Says Money Makes Us Happy 

by Stan Faryna

Stan Faryna

Can money buy you happiness? At TEDX Cambridge, Michael Norton argued that money can buy you happiness – when you spend it on other people.

Enrique Iglesias, I Just Wanna Be With You
Says Norton:
Spending on other people has a bigger return for you than spending on yourself.
The platitude that people take away from Norton’s talk is that the only problem with money is how you spend it. Perhaps.
I see a Sisyphusian dilemma. Don’t you?
The consequence of such platitudes suggests to me that Norton’s TED talk is dodgey.

Michael Norton

Michael Norton is an Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Marketing Unit at the Harvard Business School. TED describes him thus:
Through clever studies, Michael Norton studies how we feel about what we buy and spend.
He’s writing on money is here: Prosocial Spending and Well-Being, Feeling Good About Giving, and Spending on Happiness.
Michael Norton has also written about other things such as The IKEA Effect, I read Playboy for the articles, and The Artful Dodger: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way.
The Artful Dodger is particularly interesting to me regarding Norton’s TED Talk. Here’s a snippet from the Executive Summary:
Individuals frequently attempt to avoid questions they do not want to answer, from politicians dodging reporters’ requests to clarify their position on when life begins, to employees sidestepping their bosses’ questions as to why they are late for the third straight day.
A successful dodge occurs when a speaker’s answer to the wrong question is so compelling that the listener both forgets the right one, and rates the dodger positively. In some cases, speakers end up better off by answering the wrong question well rather than the right question poorly.
In conclusion, Norton suggests that dodging contributes to platitudes that disconnect us from reality and environment, our existential condition, and, perhaps, human happiness.
Norton’s TED talk, I suggest, is dodgey.


Don’t get me wrong. I like money as much as you. If you saw the happy dance I made when I thought I won one million Euros, there’d be no question in your mind. It turns out that the play I made in that lottery meant significantly less. It’s hard to explain – the lottery rules can be complex.
Anyway, I had six out of seven numbers. And, honestly, I almost chose the seventh number. It’s was a coin toss between two numbers. Had I done chosen the other number, I would have netted 12 M or so.
Oh- did I mention I never did a happy dance like I did that night?
Yet I still don’t think money can buy you true and abiding happiness. I talk about that here.
What’s my point? There’s several questions that Norton’s talk dodges. Norton is answering the wrong question well. Most notably: Can money buy you happiness?
There’s lots of other questions that are dodged. Here’s three that come immediately to mind:
You have to have money to spend money. Therefore, knowing what you do to make money, does the money-making you do… make you happy?
If you spend the money on yourself or others, does that lead to less happiness as you have less money to spend? How many times can you win the lottery!
How long does the happy high last when you spend money? Is that all that happiness can mean? Fleeting moments? Is there nothing else to be hoped for regarding human happiness?


I do not dispute Norton’s contention that spending money on others is worthwhile. In fact, I’m a big believer in giving. I also believe that giving is key to individual and human happiness – a happiness that is present in both moments, lives, and, yes, everything.

Because giving belongs to love and love belongs to our purpose, mission, identity, design, and destiny.

I love how Janet Callaway uses Norton’s video as a springboard for giving. I also agree that we need to ask ourselves, how do we get into our happy – just as Peg Fitzpatrick asks, How Do You Get Into Your Creative Flow?

What I contend are the unreflected platitudes that passionately suggest that spending money is the most efficient and effective manner to give. Or to love. Or to live whole-heartedly.

The one thing that social is teaching us, for example, is that you can give by curating others and lifting up other voices. By tweeting links to people’s blog posts and website. By mentioning and linking to other bloggers in your blog posts. By liking a Facebook post. Doing so gives as much feel good (or better) as buying them an Iced Venti Moccahino at Starbucks.

Am I mistaken?


Michael Norton, How To Buy Happiness (TED Talk)

Stan Faryna
26 April 2012
Bucharest, Romania


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5 Responses to Harvard Biz Professor Michael Norton Says Money Makes Us Happy

  1. Lack of money certainly can make us unhappy but we only have to look at the rich and famous to see how little the correlation is between happiness and money!

  2. justjoe says:

    i believe what norton’s believe. it written all over the holy book

    • Stan Faryna says:

      justjoe, I checked out your website and I think it’s great your working on e-commerce solutions for wordpress.

      If you like, perhaps we can collaborate in the development of something that is more use-able in design. Email me stan(dot)faryna(at)gmail(dot)com.

  3. Stan, aloha. Thanks for your kind words and for your thoughts on Michael’s video.

    Giving–be it your own money or of yourself in some other manner–is what I believe makes most of us happy. The “return” on giving is phenomenal.

    When people think they are “buying happiness” by acquiring material possessions, it is fleeting. There is a brief moment of happiness in the joy of acquisition and then the item itself soon loses its luster.

    Stan, so sorry you did not win because that would have been quite the happy dance. Aloha. Janet

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