Given my family’s background as intellectuals and my own goal to just fit in, my success in generating wealth has left me ambivalent about it. I take seriously the fiduciary duty to my family to continue to make investments that increase rather than diminish the value of our portfolio. I am still just as vicious when real money is at stake in a competitive situation.
But with wealth has come the need to worry about the wealth: the need to fit in with people that I am not sure I fit in with, the need to figure out our obligation to family members who are struggling, the need to face into our responsibility to human beings in general who are struggling, the need to raise kids that aren’t spoiled by privilege.
Angus Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, recently worked with Gallop to poll 450,000 Americans about their state of well-being or happiness. While happiness increases along with annual household incomes up to about $75,000, beyond that, earning more money has no effect on day-to-day contentment, according to the study. These findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Higher incomes did increase the people’s longer-term perception of the direction of their life, however.
This makes sense. As long as food and shelter are at risk, day-to-day happiness is highly correlated with money. But beyond that point, the issue becomes quite a bit more complicated. In addition, the average household income in 2008 was $71,000 (the median was actually $51,000 because of the impact of small numbers of very wealthy families), so doing at least as well as most other people—think my Echo Hill problem—also has an impact.
Above the threshold where money makes the difference between being able to feed, clothe, shelter, and transport your family, the “hedonism” trap comes into play. We work harder to get more stuff to make us feel better about ourselves, only to work even harder to buy even more expensive stuff with the false expectation that money will ultimately buy us happiness, when it cannot, no matter how financially successful we become.
Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar has become famous for his positive psychology and books on happiness. He says:
There is a common misperception concerning the relationship between happiness and success. Much research illustrates that contrary to what most people think, success does not lead to lasting happiness. The opposite, in fact, is the case: happiness leads to success. When we increase our positive experiences, we enjoy a whole range. By raising our levels of well-being we can enjoy more success in our personal lives and in our organizations.
I, personally, am not ready to throw the towel in completely on being rich, but it certainly isn’t enough to create sustained happiness. And it often comes with a heavy cost (see: “Crash & Learn”). To me, the real issue is about meaning. What really means the most in our lives and how does money relate to that?
When all you do is hang around with rich guys, you end up in a pretty boring bubble. I thought the guy driving the Porsche was an asshole, and that I too must be an asshole, not really because he was driving an expensive car but because that was how I was defining him and myself. I don’t really hate rich guys. I hate guys who are only rich. And it turns out few are, as much as the false bravado of deal jocks like me would sometimes lead you to believe that were the case.
For me, what cuts through the superficiality of money and toys and greed is the connection created from hearing or reading a true story about another man’s life who has struggled with challenges completely different from my own. My motivation in becoming a writer was to seek out and spend time with guys who I thought were cool or inspirational: athletes, soldiers, scientists, musicians, and inmates.
In my interviews with these guys, money—mine or theirs—rarely came up.
What we talked about was far more important. That’s what I think we all collectively, myself included, forget all too often: that real life is way more important than money in and of itself.
But then that’s pretty damned easy for me to say. The wealth gods have been very kind to me. It’s a hell of a lot harder to get philosophical when they are foreclosing on your house.
If money is overrated as a source of happiness for the top half, it is still profoundly important for those with not enough. And the disparity between the two is widening to the point of collapse. To even the most draconian rich guy, I say the current American way of life is not sustainable if the majority of people have no real chance.
Just listen to Jon Stewart:
Fixing the education system is easier than hoarding gold, securing a food source, and stashing weapons against a coming class war, about which at least a couple of my craziest wealthy friends are quite serious.
I am not going to pretend any of this is easy even to talk about. It’s hard for me to get much clarity on even my own ambivalence about wealth. But it’s time to break the silence. Until we do, we are all operating under a system that looks more and more like a third-world country where all the money is in a few hands, and those few suffer the delusion that it alone will make them happy.
One could certainly ask the question: isn’t speaking the truth about money not only part of being a happy man, but being a good man too?
[ 1 | 2 ]
Money photo: borman818/Flickr
Graffiti photo: FOUND by ansahe onyslio