doctor learns money can't buy happiness
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
March 27, 2024 ·  6 min read

Doctor Learns That Money Can’t Buy Happiness and Wants You To Learn, Too

How do you measure success? How do you define happiness? From the time we are born, we are taught both overtly and subconsciously that the path to satisfaction and joy is through material gain.. 

You know you’ve “made it” when you have the big house, the expensive car, and the fancy clothes. We idolize the wealthy people of the world, and many of us spend our entire lives desperately reaching for their levels of “success”.

But what if, tomorrow, you woke up and were given a terminal diagnosis. You only had a few months left to live. Would your outlook on life change?

Dr. Richard Teo Keng Siang had it all – a thriving aesthetics practice, millions of dollars, fancy sports cars – and he was only in his thirties [1]. Money was everything to him.

Everything changed when he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer [1].

Dr. Teo’s Story

Dr. Teo graduated from medical school with the plan to become an ophthalmologist. He quickly realized, though, that aesthetic medicine had a significantly faster track to success. He quit training in eye surgery and opened up his own plastic surgery business. The clinic brought in millions of dollars in its first year alone [1].

“From young, I’ve always been under the influence and impression that to be happy is to be successful. And to be successful is to be wealthy. So I led my life according to this motto.” [1]

When nagging back pain turned out to be terminal lung cancer, however, his outlook completely changed. Staring death in the face, he realized he no longer found any joy in his possessions. Not his Ferrari, not the new home he was planning to build [1].

Dr. Teo explained that he heard an “inner voice”, telling him that his suffering was necessary for him to learn, and to help others who were going through hardships [1].

He began giving speeches to groups and audiences, telling them his story and encouraging them not to let the pursuit of wealth control their lives. He did not want others to have to wait until a terminal diagnosis to figure out where happiness truly came from.

He gave these speeches right up until his death on October 18, 2012, at just forty years old [1].

How Much Money do You Need to Buy Happiness?

Of course, Dr. Teo was quick to advise that having money, fame, and success is not evil, but it should not control your life.

But can you put a dollar amount on happiness? Research says that statistically, there is a strong correlation between household income, emotional well-being and your own evaluation of your life [2].

According to a study from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western University, an increase in income does reduce negative emotions for people and families in lower-income brackets. The more money you make, however, the less of an effect this has. In fact, for families with an income of $200 000 or more, this stops entirely [3].

In a 2010 study out of Princeton University, researchers found that money increased an individual’s self-reported happiness up until they made $75 000. After they reached that mark, there was no significant change [4].

Jenny Jiao, of the Binghamton University School of Management, surveyed over 7 500 adults and discovered there was a difference between “happiness materialism” and “success materialism” [5].

Happiness materialism is the belief that wealth indicates a happy life. This way of thinking is problematic because accumulating wealth takes a lot of time and work, and tends to take away from other domains of life such as family and health, which are more likely to make you happy [5].

Success materialism is the idea that wealth signifies success, not happiness. This is what gives people the motivation to work and improve their standard of living, which could make leave them feeling happier with their current lives and more hopeful for the future [5].
″[M]oney can be a tool to motivate you to achieve major milestones in your life, which can make you feel happier in the long run,”  explained Jiao in a press release [6].

Related: Cancer Took 27-Year-Old Holly Butcher’s Life – This Is Her Touching Life Advice

So What Do You Need to be Truly Happy?

Having enough money to pay your bills with a little leftover for extra purchases does make you happy. But clearly money alone is not the path to satisfaction with your life.

Dr. Jennifer Aaker explains that certain things that you might expect to be drivers of happiness, such as money, beauty, youth, intelligence, and education, actually matter less than you think. What matters more is your self-esteem, social skills, volunteering and sense of humor [7]. 

This explains why “retail therapy” is so fleeting- your happiness goes up after you buy that new bag, but before you know it you’re looking for the next new purchase to give you that high.

Conversely, people who give more time and money report greater well-being, and people who have greater well-being invest more hours in volunteering and donate more money [7].

In the PBS program, This Emotional Life, Dan Gilbert explains that the number one indicator of happiness if the goodness and extent of their social relationships [8]. People who have friends and healthy relationships with their families tend to be happy, and people without them are not.

He also explains that we cannot be happy all the time- that anger, anxiety, jealousy, and sadness are all very useful emotions. The person who learns how to manage them is the person who will be happy [7].

What Can You do to Increase Your Happiness?

So maybe a raise isn’t in your near future, or maybe you’re already at the “happiness threshold” income. How can you improve your happiness levels? As it turns out, even just small adjustments in your day-to-day activities and in your everyday life can make a profound difference. Here are some small ways you can improve your happiness:

  1. Take a deep breath. Deep breaths can calm you down, make you feel more centered. Even just fifteen seconds of deep breathing can help change your mindset [9].
  2. Find something in your day that makes you feel grateful. Maybe you had a great breakfast that morning, or you received a nice message from a friend. Lingering on positive experiences has a positive effect on the brain [9].
  3. On the flip side, take a moment to be thankful that something didn’t happen today. You didn’t have car trouble, none of your friends are sick. Keeping things in perspective is a great way to make you feel better [9].
  4. Smile. Yes, smile. This simple action releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, and basically starts a happiness party in your brain [10].
  5. Identify your negative feelings. Putting a label on your negative feelings, like anger, sadness, anxiety. This shifts the feeling from the emotional part of your brain to the thinking part and actually makes you feel more in control [11].
  6. Appreciate yourself. Think of one thing that you can be proud of that day. Maybe you sent an email you’ve been putting off or had an honest talk with a colleague. We’re often way too hard on ourselves, and drawing attention to your strengths can lift your spirits [9].

Learn From Dr. Teo

Dr. Teo needed a terminal diagnosis to make him realize where true happiness comes from. The best we can do is learn from his experience so we can live with happiness and gratitude.

His late wife sums it up perfectly:

“He wanted to inspire those facing hardships, that life has more to offer than to be filled with hatred and emptiness,” said Mrs. Teo.

“He really wanted the new generation of doctors to change their mindset. To treat patients as human beings and not just part of the job.

“For them, it’s not too late to wake up and open their eyes… try to change the world and pay it forward.” [1]