I recently listened to a podcast episode between Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, and Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist and author. Adam and Malcolm both have a knack for calling each other out, as well as calling a spade a spade. This wasn’t their first podcast rodeo, however, what stuck with me in this episode was that Adam accused Malcolm of contradicting himself. Specifically, he pointed out the obvious contradictions between his two works, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) and the more recent David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). Malcolm, utterly undisturbed by this, didn’t argue—if anything he concurred, explaining there is nothing wrong with contradicting yourself. It shows you’ve evolved. That right there, struck a chord with me, because, when I try to explain the value of money I sometimes feel like an absolute hypocrite.
Past debates surrounding the words, “money doesn’t bring happiness” have been the start of multiple relationship re-evaluations for me. Claiming that money doesn’t bring happiness, to me, implies that poverty does [bring happiness]. Additionally, what I often have a hard time explaining— predominantly to those who refuse to listen to another point of view—is that while I don’t claim money, alone, is what will bring happiness, it is one of the most important tools in our belt, if not the key ingredient to life’s recipe. However, it is simply that: a tool.
Many in our idealistic society claim that money is the least of what matters when compared to other characteristics and values, such as health, family, friendships, and the freedom of choice. And I agree; these are important matters—more important than many other issues and current events. I have found myself second-guessing my life choices many times this past year and trying to stop myself from faking my own death and moving to a deserted island; after all, I would be wholeheartedly stress-free eating fish and coconuts rather than worrying about how the stock market is doing and whether we will be able to retire on time.
And then I come to my senses. What I will always point out is that money is what creates and backs up all of these causes. It is the funding, or the R&D, behind the health, the family, the friendships, and the freedom to be. Is money, in fact, evil, or is it well-intentioned? Is it anything but what we want it to be?
More money isn’t going to improve your mindset; if you’re a glass-half-empty person—with or without money—you’ll be a miserable bastard regardless. Buying more stuff won’t bring more joy into our lives. We have all come across plenty of people with nice clothes or nice cars who are still the definition of wretched. If anything, plenty of folks use shopping as an escape rather than dealing with what makes them unhappy—also labelled as shopping therapy. On the flipside, buying “stuff” truthfully brings more joy—when that “stuff” includes food, clothing, and other necessities for your children or your family and loved ones. So, I will, once again, point out that the pursuit of happiness without money is impossible. I understand it’s be a hard pill to swallow, but money has an impact on happiness, no question about it! Wattles (1910) explained it best:
Whatever may be said in praise of poverty, the fact remains that it is not possible to live a really complete or successful life unless one is rich. No man can rise to his greatest possible height in talent or soul development unless he has plenty of money; for to unfold the soul and to develop talent he must have many things to use, and he cannot have these things unless he has money to buy them with. (p.7)
Plain English: I’m not going to Harvard anytime soon, if I don’t have the eighty grand to back that up. While moral codes surrounding finances vary from culture to culture, it’s no secret that wealthier societies tend to have better health care mechanisms (although that would be ambiguous and up for debate and personal preference), cleaner environments, and other conveniences that improve their citizens’ quality of life. Aspiring for wealth or better living circumstances shouldn’t label one as an ethical egoist without examining all the facts.
The aspiration of wealth is usually for the pursuit of everyone’s happiness, for the good of all comrades. Meeler (2008) explains how money brings about happiness because “[it] is a general device that can be used to get the specific things that make us happy. As a result, money is valuable for what it can get you. (p. 55). In other words, there are things that only money is able to help us with. Money buys time and experiences, which can make us happy.
But Kahneman et al suggest that the wealth-happiness correlation is an illusion. “When someone reflects on how additional income would change subjective well-being, they are probably tempted to think about spending more time in leisurely pursuits … but in reality they should think of spending a lot more time working …” (2006, p. 1910). I disagree. Many may think of the ‘additional income’ factor as achievable through a higher-paying job within an organization, which entails added responsibilities. On the other hand, perhaps they see it as an entrepreneurial venture with added headaches. Yet, there are other roads to wealth; we just have to persevere in our search for them.
I’m not saying that filling out surveys or investing five grand in the next get-rich-quick-scheme is a good idea. I’m saying be creative and persevere. Just be careful not to be duped.
When we don’t make enough to support our families we’re forced into accepting jobs to be able to pay the bills; many of us even have to get a second job, resulting in less time spent with our loved ones. Someone with plenty of money, on the other hand, is able to work at just one job, or has the luxury of being able to take time off to go on a drawn-out vacation, or spend more time with their loved ones. When you have more money at your disposal, you decide what you spend it on, whether that be vacations, concerts, shopping trips, or on people we love. On this note, when we have more disposable income, we can share more through giving. After all, it’s true that we’re not going to the grave with it, isn’t it? I see no other purpose in making money than to be able to share it. Whether that’s sharing it with others you know, or others across the planet, whom, frankly, you couldn’t give a damn about but who still form part of the human race. At the end of the day, not all of us want to be Rothschilds.
For some, being labelled “wealthy” purely entails having enough tucked away for a major—or minor—emergency; having a steady stream of income to pay for all your bills until you pass away; or having the roof over your head paid off and being in perfect health to enjoy that roof without worrying whether your RRSPs will be sufficient, or your bank decides not to refinance your mortgage. Ultimately, wealth is measured by the beholder, but money is the yardstick.
Meeler, D., (2017). Utilitarianism. In Allhoff, F., Sager, A., & Vaidya, A. J. (2nd Ed.). Business in ethical focus: an anthology. (pp. 35-42). (Original work published 2008).
Gladwell, M., (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Back Bay Books.
Gladwell, M., (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Little, Brown and Company.
Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., and Stone, A. A. (2006). Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion. Science 312, 1908–1910. doi: 10.1126/science.1129688
Wattles, W., 1910. The Science of Getting Rich. New York: Elizabeth Towne Publishing.