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Let's cut right to the chase here. How much money is enough? How much would make you happy this holiday season? We mean really happy.
A million? $10 million? $100 million? The age-old question of whether money can buy happiness plays out in the headlines daily.
* Jewel Whittaker, wife of the lottery winner who took home the richest undivided jackpot in U.S. history -- a lump-sum payout of about $113 million after taxes -- now says she regrets his purchase of the ticket that won the $314.9 million jackpot. Since winning two years ago, her husband, Jack Whittaker, 57, of West Virginia has been arrested twice for driving under the influence and ordered into rehab, faces charges that he attacked a bar manager, and is accused in two lawsuits of making trouble at a nightclub and a racetrack.
* Indiana Pacers star Ron Artest earns more than $6 million a year, but he didn't seem very happy that November night he was brawling in the stands in Detroit.
* The main character in Madonna's upcoming children's book, Lotsa de Casha, is an Italian greyhound who has all the money in the world. Guess what: He's not happy.
* And is Bill Clinton, who became a best-selling author this year, happier now that he's in the richest 1% for the first time in his life, as he confessed at the Democratic National Convention this summer? Maybe. Maybe not.
Billionaire Richard Branson, who always appears to be having a pretty good time with his money, is hosting a new TV show this season called The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best.
He says money is not the only motivation that keeps these young people striving, week after week, for a job with him.
''It's rare to find people motivated only by money,'' he says. ''If so, they're rather sad people. Money, to most, is just a byproduct.''
And it's a byproduct that more people have. There are more wealthy Americans than ever: The number of households with more than $1 million in net worth (excluding primary residence) has risen to a record high and at a record rate, research released in November by TNS Financial Services shows.
According to TNS' annual survey of wealthy U.S. households, the number has shot to 8.2 million as of mid-2004, a 33% increase over last year. It's the largest increase ever recorded by the study, which began monitoring this group in 1981.
But again, are they any happier?
Star Wars director George Lucas looks at it this way: ''Money can buy pleasure, but pleasure isn't happiness. Happiness is a feeling that goes beyond pleasure.''
Says psychologist Stephen Goldbart of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, a San Francisco Bay Area clinic that helps people deal with their bounty: ''When people come into money, it challenges everything. How much is the money going to drive my life -- or am I going to drive my life?''
Goldbart has clients write a mission statement, ''what will give you satisfaction and meaning and purpose to your life. It's all rather hollow without connection to others.''
Taking a look at the richest of the rich -- the top of Forbes' billionaires list -- they at least appear happy. And driving their own lives.
Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Paul Allen, the list's top three Americans, are in the news almost daily: Gates giving away millions through his foundation, Buffett amusing investment groups with folksy tales about how he made his billions, Allen playing with his interactive music museum in Seattle.
Maybe at the billionaire level, happiness is assured.
But most studies on the money/happiness relationship find that money does not buy happiness. It might make your life easier, but it doesn't buy happiness.
A report from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation even found an inverse relationship between money and a child's happiness. More middle-class children said they were happier than their wealthier classmates.
Branson understands. ''My parents were rather puritanical, and they brought me up to switch off the light bulb in the hallway before going to bed. So I still feel guilty if I spend too much on myself.''
Satisfaction can be cheap
Not that being a billionaire doesn't come in handy. He tells the story about how his father became ill while on vacation, and Branson was able to hire a helicopter to get him to the hospital.
But how much money is enough to bring true happiness? Branson is philosophical.
''You can only eat one breakfast or one lunch or one dinner a day,'' he says. ''You can only eat in one kitchen. So you don't need a massive mansion. If you actually look at what you need in a year, you don't need to be a multimillionaire to get satisfaction in life. A billionaire and someone who earns $150,000 -- the difference in satisfaction would not be that much different.''
Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org, the massive Internet bulletin board, agrees. ''Once you make a comfortable living, how much extra stuff do you need?'' His Web site's revenue is projected to be $11 million this year.
When asked, most people say they don't need much, although the pleasures of $1,000 Frette sheets came up now and then.
''You can have all the money in the world. You can have everything under the tree that you ever wanted. And if you're sitting there alone, you are the saddest, loneliest human being on the planet, and there is absolutely nothing that money can buy that will fill your soul,'' actress Jamie Lee Curtis says.
Family comes first
Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter) has seen firsthand how too much money affects a family's happiness, for better and for worse.
''The great thing about money is you can send your kids to school and not worry about it,'' he says. ''You certainly have nice dinners. And you don't have to live in a place with mice and rats,'' as Columbus did when he was starting out in New York City.
''But the only thing money provides is a level of security. We never had nannies for our kids or cooks or any of those things. It takes away from family life. I'm very devoted to not doing that. I learned it by seeing other families in the film business sort of destroy their families by having too many other people around. The kids didn't know who their parents were.''
Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks says ''happiness has always been my family, and I've had one of those since I was born.''
Like Columbus and Hanks, Clint Eastwood says happiness comes from relationships, not money.
''Money can't buy happiness, but it can certainly alleviate discomfort,'' he says. ''Happiness to me is my wife. You see, all that .45 Magnum stuff in the past prevented people from knowing that I'm a romantic.''
Richard Ball, a professor in Haverford (Pa.) College's department of economics, knows where all these people are coming from.
Ball attempted to answer the money/happiness question in Absolute Income, Relative Income and Happiness, a paper he presented at the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies conference in Philadelphia last month.
His findings? A person's happiness is affected much less by income than by marital status, health and the protection of civil liberties in his or her country.
But one of Ball's other findings is that being better off than your neighbor makes you happier still. He calls it a ''purely psychological phenomenon,'' relating it to the feeling people have when they see one lane of traffic moving when their lane isn't.
Ball also says ''choosing the right pond'' is important to someone's happiness, just as much as how much you make. Some people are happy being a small fish in a big pond. Others are happy being the big fish in a small pond.
Supermodel Gisele Bndchen says it's a trade-off.
''I was as happy when I had no money, when I came to New York when I was 15 and jumping over the subway gate because I didn't have enough money for the tolls, when I was eating McDonald's every day because that was the only thing I could afford. I was as happy then as I am now,'' she says.
''Now I have financial security, but I also have a lot more stress. With a lot more money comes a lot more responsibility. And in the beginning, I knew people liked me because they liked me as a person and not because I could help them or because they need money.''
'Your spirit inside'
Actor Beau Bridges says the topic of money and happiness was a topic of a recent sermon at his church. ''In the end, the stuff that we own isn't important,'' he says. ''What's important is your spirit inside.''
Then again, there are the people who still think money buys, if not happiness, things. Lots of things.
TV personality Star Jones, who just married Al Reynolds, caused a ruckus when her wedding became an over-the-top production, registering at Geary Beverly Hills and Tiffany along the way.
One item on Jones' ''wish list'' was a George IV-style silver tray. The price: almost $11,000. Also on the list: gilded plates, baroque-style silverware and the aforementioned Frette sheets.
Whether she's happy has yet to be determined.
Tiger Woods, who has made millions and millions in his career, says he's content with his life now. ''I am now doing what I love to do for a living, competing and playing golf,'' says the recently married Woods.
With his Tiger Woods Foundation and annual clinics, Woods says, he now gets the chance to make other people ''happy about their lives and the future of their life.''
He says he wouldn't give it all up for two times or three times the money. ''There's no price on that, my life, my friends.''
Psychologist Goldbart says the one good thing to come out of 9/11 is the fact many people with money stopped to ask the question: ''What is it all about?''
''The rich have become more like everyone else, which is a good thing'' he says. ''It's gone from hubris to humility.''
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