CAN SCIENCE SETTLE THE QUESTION OF WHETHER MONEY CAN BUY HAPPINESS?
The question of whether or not money can indeed buy happiness is largely dependent upon how the individual chooses to define what makes them happy. Such a definition is generally based upon personal life experience, the values taught to them in childhood and throughout their most crucial developmental years, and what their experience has been later in life with the manifestations of joy and disappointment, and what the catalysts were of each.
The bottom line is that we learn from experience. Within a subjective reality wherein a thousand people can assign a thousand different words or feelings to describe a single painting or a photograph, they draw from past personal experiences which have shaped their perceptions and thus helped form their interpretive responses. Various branches of psychological study have proven this. Neuroscientists have even developed ways to measure human emotions in response to external stimuli. One part of the brain becomes more active when perceptibly pleasurable sensations are transmitted through any of the five senses. Another part of the brain becomes more active in response to unpleasant sensations, such as fear or worry. A person who is a member of a society with certain norms and values carved throughout the centuries may have entirely different responses and measures in brain activity than a person who has spent a lifetime engrained with entirely different ideals.
If you were to approach almost any young adult living in a first world country and ask if they believed that money would be capable of buying them happiness, in the majority of the cases the answer would be yes. Chances are they've heard their parents complaining about bills that need to be paid or things they wish they could afford, and the lack of money becomes associated with sadness and disappointment. Each time such a conversation repeats itself the belief is reinforced. Mass media marketing pairs products and their price tags alongside smiling people expressing seemingly inexhaustible positive emotion, thus money becomes acquainted with the purchasing of material possessions, which in turn are proposed to equal happiness. And the more we see this scenario played out, the more believable it becomes. The associations we make in life are largely based on the examples provided to us.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you were to approach people in underdeveloped third world countries and ask if they believed that money would buy them happiness, chances are you would find a wider variation of responses. Some would tell you that happiness is an emotion, and emotions cannot be bought, they must be experienced. They would equate money with the purchase of experiences, not with the direct purchase of emotions, perhaps posing the more existential concept to you that such a thing is not possible in the way we define our literal reality.
Residents of impoverished nations, in certain times and places, have blamed their misfortunes on wealthier countries and have come to equate money with negativity, believing that wealth leads to corruption and the disintegration of the human spirit. Not only would these people not equate money with happiness, but their individual perception of happiness would center more around the opposite of what many consumers in first world countries believe happiness to be. In places where religion, hard work, the love of family and closeness within the community are at the heart of what brings joy into people's lives, money is little more than an afterthought.
What money can buy and what it comes to be equated with is not something for the scientific method to prove. It is an intangible truth which means something different to each person. Just like the stock market and the endless rollercoaster ride it represents to the whole of the global economy, things like truth and happiness and the value we place on them will continue to change with the times. How we choose to perceive these things are ultimately as individual as you and me.