Midas, Goldfinger and the Futility of Wealth

A gold painted model of a Bond girl from the James Bond movie 'Goldfinger' is seen at a 2013 exhibition in Shanghai. PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Bond villain Auric Goldfinger loved gold, and had quite a bit to love. The man could afford to leave gold-painted women lying around hotel rooms, but none of it was enough. He always needed a little bit more, and failing that he'd devalue everyone else's shiny with an atomic bomb. In other words, he was a massively unhappy jerk.


If we wade out of the fictional surf and into the deeper waters of myth, we encounter King Midas. He too obsessed about glittery Au and, as a gift from the god Dionysus, he gained the power to turn everything he touched into gold. It sure seemed like a great idea at the time, but Midas soon found his alchemical touch transformed food, drink and even his beloved daughter into lifeless wealth.

Midas especially embodies the old adage "money can't buy you happiness," and we often feel the dark glee of schadenfreude when tales of doomed lottery winners and unhappy celebrities seem to prove the point. But is there any truth to it?

The Price of Happiness

Happiness is a pretty tricky concept to nail down. Not only is it incredibly subjective, but you can also apply it to single moments and overarching phases of life. Still, here are two cases in which, yes, money can buy you happiness:

1. When money elevates you above the poverty line. As detailed in this Huffington Post piece, life below the poverty line brings increased risks of, violence, infectious disease, chronic diseases, mental health problems, sleep disorders and stress. In many cases, we're talking about an individual's financial inability to meet their own basic needs.

Once you pass the poverty level, however, the effects of money on happiness level out. According to Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, homeless people in Calcutta rated their contentedness level at 2.9 out of 7. American millionaires enjoyed a lofty 5.8, but so did Inuits in Greenland. This is where you enter the "more money, more problems" realm, or at least "more money, same problems."

2. But don't abandon those fruitless fantasies about lottery winnings just yet. According to NPR, a 2014 Cornell University study showed that experiential purchases produced greater levels of happiness than material purchases. In other words, blow your money on vacations and concerts rather than fancy gadgets and new kitchen fixings. Part of it is the imaginative excitement one feels leading up to the "adventure" of travel or an event -- and then there's also the social engagement and the time spent with experiences versus the instant gratification and solitude of buying that new Apple wristwatch.

All of this ads up to a more meaningful life born through the investment of time. Even the happiness of wealthy individuals, according to "Can money buy happiness?" by Jennifer Horton, generally stems from success and enjoyment in one's job rather than the size of the paycheck.

Still, I bet you can buy some really nice meaningful experiences with a CEO's holiday bonus.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.