We’ve heard over and over again that money can’t buy happiness. Lottery winners are frequently cited examples. Most of them don’t end up happier or better off a year after their big wins. But the pursuit for wealth is one of the most powerful motivations in human history. Mae West summarizes it nicely when she said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.”

Better in what way? Clearly money can be wonderful. With money, you can buy a big house and nice cars. If you have enough of it, you can travel first class while everyone else has trouble stretching out his legs. Money gives us freedom – it pays for the babysitter when Mom and Dad want to go out in the evening. Wealthy people don’t have to be jerked around by their bosses or get by on two weeks vacation. They are free to go wherever and whenever they want, start their own companies or initiate a charitable project.

To be constantly worried about money isn’t the desirable way of living. On the other had, there are plenty of rich folks in this world who absolutely miserable. So money isn’t the problem, but our insatiable desire for more and faster.

Researches have shown that after a certain safety net is reached, additional income has little impact on our wellbeing. But Michael Nortan’s study suggests that money can buy us happiness if we know how to spend it the right way. And the right way is to spend more of it on other people. How much and for what reason is nearly as important as the fact that you spend it on others rather than yourself. In almost every part of the world, people who donate money to charity are happier than those who don’t give.

My colleague shared with me that after her in-laws who were in their eighties passed away one after the other within a 3-week window, her husband and sister-in-law discovered that their parents left them with a large sum of inheritance. Since the old couple’s only source of income was their retirement salaries, the only logical explanation was that they had spent the absolute minimum on themselves for decades. My colleague was grateful but wished that her in-laws could have enjoyed the money themselves. She felt bad that they didn’t even get a chance to say ‘thank you’ to the gift givers.

It seems to me that her in-laws made saving money a hobby of their lives. They probably got a lot of satisfaction out of envisioning their children and grandchildren enjoying life more because of their sacrifices. That generation grew up in scarcity and instability that shaped their value and moral systems. We can choose to live more and give more (not limited to monetary giving). We also have a choice of giving more broadly and for higher causes.

When Jane, Michelle and I went shopping before they went back to school, the girls commented that I could have some much more money to spend on myself if I didn’t have children. They knew college and nice things were very expensive. I told them I loved sharing with them because more stuff for me only wouldn’t make me happier. In their earlier teens, my daughters had a sense of entitlement that was worrisome to me and Joe. But they’ve grown out of it. Nowadays there is a genuine exhibition of appreciation towards their parents’ hard work and generosity, which makes sharing a lot more fun and enjoyable.

I spent some time buying gifts for family and friends in China before our trip. It isn’t an easy job any more because one can buy almost anything in China these days and people have almost anything they’ve ever wanted. It’s the thought that counts. Imagining my mother’s smile when she sees the handbag I’ve chosen for her puts a smile on my face too.

Giving to people who aren’t related to you and who have no ways of paying you back is more meaningful and satisfactory. If we all give a little more and expect a little less, there will be more happier people in this world and the world will become a better place to live!