What Money Can Do to You and for You

bag of money

Is a preoccupation with money like a religion? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion in three ways:

1. The belief in a god or in a group of gods.

2. An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.

3. An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.

The last of these competes for our attention with the organized and historic religions. Some people even state that those of us in the West worship the dollar. Lots of sayings display the long shadow that money throws over human existence:

    • “Money makes the world go round.” (Others say it is love that makes the world go round).
    • “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life: now that I’m old I know that it is.” (Oscar Wilde)
    • “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” (Mark Twain)
    • “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (Timothy 6:10)
    • “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.” (Johnny Carson)

Of these, I think perhaps Johnny Carson (the long time host of the Tonight Show before Jay Leno) is the most intriguing. Carson enjoyed being a wealthy man, but recognized that it didn’t guarantee a happy life. All the problems with relationships, alcohol, broken marriages, infidelity, an even an ever-present bit of anxiety before every comedy monologue he ever gave — all these were well-known to him. He appears to have enjoyed being a rich man, but equally seems not to have been a very happy one.

Carson’s comment only deals with the problem of having lots of money. No, his worry was not the same as the person who wonders if he has enough for a room and a good meal or how to put his daughter through college. In his short story, Under New Management, Joseph Epstein expresses a different perspective in the voice of his character Artie Abrams, Marty Abrams’ son. Marty was a father who became wealthy in middle-age or, as his son put it:

I had to wait until my twenties to acquire a father like everyone else’s: a man distracted, concentrated on moneymaking, with less and less sense of the everyday adventurousness of life.

Artie blamed his father’s second wife for this. Artie’s mom had died of cancer some years before the new Mrs. Abrams transformed her husband into a money machine. And what did Marty himself think of the “magnificence” of his own wealth? He told his son exactly what he thought:

Some magnificence. It’s just about money, and money isn’t always magnificent. Sometimes it isn’t even a lot of fun. You always have to be watching over the goddamn stuff, making sure it’s producing on its own, that someone isn’t making a tenth of  a percentage point more than you, which leaves you feeling like a schmuck. This is not a problem I expected to have.

Most people would call it a happy problem, Dad.

But for Marty and Artie there was a bigger problem. Marty had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As Johnny Carson said, “The only thing money gives you is the freedom of not worrying about money.”

Beyond the necessity of money in order to purchase life’s necessities, it is almost like a projective psychological test that all of us take without giving our permission. A dollar bill is the same in anyone’s hands: it looks the same, it feels the same, it smells the same, but from one person to another it doesn’t mean the same thing.

What do I mean by this? I’m talking about why it might be important to you beyond the essential things like purchasing food. Think of some of the possible meanings money has for people:

  • a sense of financial security
  • public status
  • making a living
  • helping out your kids
  • a way to improve the lives of others by giving it away
  • a way to make yourself feel good by giving it away
  • the necessary ingredient to obtain the permanent sexual partner of your dreams, who might otherwise not give you the time of day
  • a way of measuring how you are doing in life in comparison to your business competitors or friends
  • a method of exerting influence over the political direction of the country (think of the Koch Brothers or George Soros)
  • a way of boosting your private level of self-esteem
  • the ability to see a ballgame or concert of your choice from a good seat
  • what you are willing to do in order to get more of it (get a good education, work hard, cheat, put in long hours away from your family, etc.)

For those who hope to alter their self-esteem by making lots of money, I’ve got some news for you: there are limits here, too. In my therapy practice, I saw a great many people who had made lots of money. Many of them suffered from low self-esteem, nonetheless. Some felt that they were frauds. The looked good on the outside — fancy clothes, nice home — but the money hadn’t changed what they felt on the inside.

Too many had believed that lots of money would solve all their problems and discovered what Johnny Carson knew, even if they’d never read the quote I mentioned. For most of us, the purchase of a new, fancy, expensive car feels good for only a while. As the “new car smell” fades, so does the emotional boost it gives us.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has some important things to say about money. First he defines two kinds of happiness. There is the happiness that comes from thinking about (evaluating) your life. This is called “life satisfaction.” Then there is the happiness or well-being that you experience from moment-to-moment. He cites a Gallup world poll to draw some lessons about money:

  • “The conclusion (of the Gallup research) is that being poor makes one miserable and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being (the second definition above).”
  • “The satiation level beyond which experienced well-being no longer increases was a household income of about $75,000 in high-cost areas (it could be less in areas where the cost of living was lower). The average increase of experienced well-being associated with incomes beyond that level was precisely zero.”
  • “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”*

Put all this together and one comes to realize that the American Dream to which so many aspire, is something quite imperfect. If you are looking for happiness in making tons of money, you may be searching in the wrong place. The legend of King Midas, whose every touch made objects into gold, was a cautionary tale.

It is a fine and necessary thing to have money. It is not so fine for the money to have you.

The money bag pictured above is the work of Barbara Lock and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Joseph Epstein’s short story, Under New Management, can be found in The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories published in 2010.

*The quotations from Daniel Kahneman come from his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f3/Inveja_covarrubias.jpg/256px-Inveja_covarrubias.jpg

If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.

Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.

And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.

The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.

Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.

Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”

Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.

Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.

Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.

There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.

I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.

This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.

The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…

Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.

The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.

Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.

When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.

The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.