I have a nine-month-old daughter. She’s our first. Every night, I give her a bottle before putting her to bed. It’s usually a happy moment without distraction. But the other night as I fed her, I mindlessly scrolled Instagram, hovering over idealized versions of people I didn’t even know. Suddenly, my daughter put her hand on my cheek. I glanced at her to see wide eyes and raised brows staring back at me in the dark. My heart broke. How had I turned this time with my kid into something unworthy of my attention?
If I could so easily disconnect from my own adoring, adorable daughter, I wondered how far we’d all gone in forsaking each other to stare longingly into the lonely abyss of social media. I did some Googling. In 2017, average adults spent almost six hours a day on digital media, almost double the amount recorded in 2008, according to the 2018 Kleiner Perkins Internet Trends report. Meanwhile, science has proven that our happiness most depends on deep human connection.
As our social media obsessions seem to pull us further away from real relationships, it’s no surprise that happiness in the U.S. continues to drop. But since I write about money, I wondered what these trends toward disconnection and discontentment might mean to our financial wellbeing. It turns out, science says that happy, purposeful people make better financial decisions. As I connected the dots, I scribbled down my Einstein-level theory.
While we all know the “money can’t buy happiness” anachronism, we overlook its far more important opposite: Happiness can buy money. And since real relationships make us happiest, maybe shutting off social media and paying more attention to the people around us might just make us happy, purposeful and rich.
We measure money because it’s fundamentally important to our lives. But while we look at things like savings rates and portfolio returns, we usually disregard the human inputs that most affect the bottom line. Think about it. Economists measure every possible economic input to GDP but disregard things like happiness levels among citizens. Yet almost nothing matters more to financial outcomes than our state of mind. And ultimately, having the emotional capacity to make good financial decisions relies on our ability to establish meaningful personal connections.
When we do, science says that our resulting positive outlook allows for clearer and more complex thinking. Someone feeling optimistic of the future is more likely to not just define a strategy to tackle debt, but to actually stick to the plan. We’re more likely to make smart choices like putting a savings plan in place or avoiding overspending. While our happiness wanes as meaningful relationships yield to our digital addictions, we’re more likely to suffer the consequences of emotionally driven, irrational financial behavior.
Beyond happiness, human connection also provides a greater sense of purpose that makes us far more likely to create and sustain long-term wealth. When we feel the support of others, our purpose can often have meaning beyond earning a paycheck, which means we’re motivated to perform better, push careers forward and boost income along the way. Feeling that support and accountability also means we’re inclined to overcome challenges that might otherwise do damage to our financial situation.
When we instead seek to live in the idealized world we see on social media, our purpose revolves around short-term rewards. We struggle to see a future worthy of financial and emotional investment when we view money only as a means to keep up with what’s currently popular among our digital neighbors. As a result, we disregard any kind of plan that might protect our long-term financial security.
Digital media can also make us severely misinterpret the realities of each other’s existence, leading us to make money decisions based on bad assumptions. Since we only see the perfect social media versions of each other, we try to keep up by way of materialism, doing irreversible damage to our financial security and, in turn, our happiness–and so on in an endless cycle.
When we instead connect with people, we see each other’s blemishes, which means we can set more realistic expectations for ourselves. We suddenly feel less of a desire to constantly fill some invisible void with reckless swipes of our credit card when we find fulfillment in our relationships instead of things. And while your Instagram feed might not look as flashy, cutting unnecessary spending will make you richer than many people attempt to appear.
I’m sure I’ll face plenty more stares from my daughter in the years to come, but I’m glad that her first real look of disappointment reminded me of something so important: That I might feel a bit happier by connecting with her instead of the glare of a screen. And in doing so, I might find more of a purpose in making the type of healthy money choices that will ultimately provide her with long-term financial security.