Yesterday, on his seventh Reddit AMA (that's "Ask Me Anything," for the uninitiated), Bill Gates took on a simple but profound question: "Are you happy?" You might think the answer is obvious. The man is a billionaire, after all. Why wouldn't a phenomenally rich guy like Gates be happy?

And indeed, the Microsoft founder answered with a resounding, "Yes!" 

But even as Gates celebrated his own contentment, he also made a point of explaining that it isn't his billions that make him happy. Instead, it's something much simpler that, unfortunately, is increasingly out of reach for many Americans.

Gates and science agree: Not worrying about money makes you happier

When another Reddit user asked Gates, "Do you think being a billionaire has made you a happier person than if you were just a middle class person?" he offered a forthright "Yes." 

But it isn't the trampoline room in his house or the fact he frequently flies via private jet that makes the difference. Instead, it's the freedom to not stress about money. "I don't have to think about health costs or college costs. Being free from worry about financial things is a real blessing. Of course, you don't need a billion to get to that point," he explains.

Gates reads a lot of research so he's no doubt aware that science is on his side on this point. Study after study shows that making more will increase your happiness about up to the point where you can stop worrying about covering essentials and absorb the shocks and setbacks life inevitably throws your way. After that, having strong relationships and more time are greater predictors of well being.

The trouble with Gates's happiness advice

So far, Gates's thoughts on money and happiness seem sensible and straightforward. But there's one big complication when it comes to the relationship between finances and well being. As Gates acknowledges, getting to that magic point where you can stop worrying about money and cover basics like college and health care is becoming harder and harder for most Americans.

"We do need to reduce the cost growth in these areas so they are accessible to everyone," he adds in his answer.

Later, he elaborates on the problem of health care costs in America. When a Redditor asks, "Is there something that is incredibly important in your opinion that hasn't garnered as much interest generally as it should have?" he replies: "In the US I would say getting bipartisan consensus on how to reduce health care costs is a critical issue that doesn't get enough focus."

The numbers (as usual) bear him out. The average cost of health insurance, adjusted for inflation, has increased ninefold since the 1960s. Total spending on health care rose from $74.6 billion in 1970 to $3.5 trillion in 2017. Meanwhile, the cost of an undergraduate degree at a public school rose 213 percent just from the late '80s.

These statistics put a grim spin on Gates's answer. Sure, you don't need a billion dollars to be happy. You don't even need a million dollars. (And no, don't write me enraged tweets--no one, including Gates, who also writes about his joy in his kids, is saying money is everything when it comes to happiness.) But it is super helpful not to worry that, if your child gets sick, you won't be able to afford her medicine. And that sadly, is too high a bar for many Americans.

What's to be done about this? Unfortunately, this isn't one of those columns where I can offer you an easy takeaway, except maybe to call your congresspeople and express outrage about the situation. Because Gates and a ton of research are right: In America, it's getting a lot harder to reach the point where money isn't a drag on happiness.

Published on: Feb 26, 2019