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Money May Not Buy Happiness. But Purpose Can.


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From the outside, wealthy families appear to have it all. Homes, cars, vacations and other trappings of wealth seem like they should directly correlate with happiness. Yet many wealthy individuals report feeling unfulfilled, giving proof to the adage “money can’t buy happiness.”

The problem is compounded when wealthy families compare themselves with those around them. They sometimes feel they should be happier than they are, which creates a disappointing gap between their financial security and their emotional state.

If the ability to buy anything we want doesn’t correlate with happiness, then what does? Behavioral scientists who have pondered this question find two major drivers of well-being:

  • Developing meaningful relationships, and
  • Learning and mastering new things.1,2

Wealth Propels Purpose

Purpose is a driving force that motivates us to pursue the goals we find rewarding. A shared purpose among a family can be even more powerful, particularly when it reflects the priorities of each family member. Given that the mere presence of money does not lead to happiness, a better question to ask is, “How can we use money to make us happy?”

While having purpose certainly does not require wealth, wealth can help strengthen a family’s shared purpose. Secure in the knowledge that all their financial needs have been met, wealthy families can devote their time and energy to satisfying their emotional needs for growth and connection. Many choose to do so through philanthropy, service and stewardship.

Sharing Wealth – And Values

Wealth gives families the opportunity to think bigger about the difference they want to make in the world – and in the lives of future generations. Recent research has highlighted the importance of well-being and a sense of purpose in passing wealth to others.3

For example, by establishing a family philanthropy program, families can develop deeper relationships with each other and with their broader community. Gathering to discuss the causes and organizations that mean the most to each individual can help the group form a shared mission.

Families can fuel lifelong learning by volunteering regularly, both individually and as a group. Opportunities abound for local service, and for incorporating hands-on help into family vacations. Establishing a donor-advised fund is an easy way to start involving younger generations in grantmaking decisions.

Stewarding the family’s wealth goes beyond estate planning to consider the values that should be passed along with the assets. A comprehensive wealth transfer strategy prepares inheritors for the responsibilities as well as the opportunities conveyed by significant wealth.

Finding Your Common Purpose

Successful families thrive by creating a culture that supports a range of interests and rewards a variety of talents. To help families find their common purpose and clarify their shared values, we have developed a five-step process to develop a Cornerstone Statement, which captures a family’s core values and intentions for wealth.

Engaging across generations creates a powerful shared purpose among all family members. While money alone may not buy happiness, it can be used to pursue a shared purpose, bring your family closer together and contribute to an even stronger legacy.

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  1. Niemiec, C. P., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2009). The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life. Journal of Research in Personality.
  2. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2019). Brick by brick: The origins, development, and future of self-determination theory. Advances in Motivational Science. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective. Contemporary Education Psychology.
  3. Franklin, R. S., & Tordini, C.E. (2020). Well-being supported by family wealth: A foundation to flourish. Tax Management Estates, Gifts, and Trusts Journal.


This information is not intended to be and should not be treated as legal, investment, accounting or tax advice and is for informational purposes only. Readers, including professionals, should under no circumstances rely upon this information as a substitute for their own research or for obtaining specific legal, accounting or tax advice from their own counsel.  All information discussed herein is current only as of the date appearing in this material and is subject to change at any time without notice.

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