‘Your money or your life!’
What would you rather spare, if you were assaulted by a man who put a knife on your throat?
Most people would give him the money, hoping to stay alive. Somehow, we sense that our life is far more valuable than our possessions. But, in less extreme situations, we behave as if it was the other way around, sacrificing our lives to make more and more money. Can money really buy happiness? Many people believe so.
In Western cultures, our jobs have become the center of our lives. Notice that whenever we meet a stranger, ‘what do you do’ is one of the very first questions we ask. Money is a taboo topic, but the answer to the job question allows us to estimate how much one is making and whom we are dealing with. Our job becomes our identity.
Thanks to the industrial revolution and consumerism, our whole lives are so organized around making money, that we actually have little time left to live and enjoy spending it. Our material needs are created by some marketing experts telling us what we need to feel better and live the life to the fullest. Kids are raised by third persons because their parents are busy making money, which leads to a wide spectrum of disorders and mental health issues, depression included. As Vicky Robin pointed out in her book Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps To Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence, making a living has become “making a dying”.
Dalai Lama, when asked about what surprised him most about humanity, he said:
Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.
His Holiness nailed it. That’s exactly how we are living. My job makes me hate my life, but it’s the only way to pay for my depression treatment and private cognitive behavioral therapy. I know I need money, but having it doesn’t bring me joy or solace.
Is there a way out of this vicious circle?
When Earning A Living Becomes Only “Earning”
My relationship with money has been shaped by culture and my family’s changing financial circumstances. My family’s financial situation along the years is best represented by a sinusoid. There were times when we could travel abroad with the whole family, or when my brother and I would go to four different summer camps during one summer. There were also times when my Dad would tank a gallon of fuel and pray to arrive before it runs out. But we never felt that our worth depended on how much money our parents were making. On the contrary, to my family life has always been about the value of our experiences, not the value of our possessions.
After my father died, I quit my job and started a business of my own. I was desperate to make real money and provide my family with some financial stability. You can imagine how it all ended though. For the next two years I didn’t earn a penny from it. Eventually, I had to look for another employment to make ends meet. Depression was like a bucket of cold water spilt over my head. I am grateful for being given a chance to understand what life is really about. Depression made me realize that I traded my freedom for a vision of wealth, neglecting completely all other spheres of life.
Relationship with money was also the main reason I dumped my boyfriend. For my dear ex, who grew up in a family that worshipped the dollar, wealth was an aim by itself, and possessing symbols of status was his main obsession. His parents’ idee fixe was raising living cash machines – children who would make millions as a internationally reknown piano virtuoso and a successful tennis player. What they did succeed at however was raising a kid that desperately wanted the money to reassure him of his own worth.
Raised by parents with such values, my ex would refuse to go for a vacation because his boss paid him extra for the days off he didn’t take. He couldn’t quite understand that money is nothing but a mean to create a satisfactory life and fulfill one’s dreams. I tried to explain him that one does not need much to travel and have fun. Hiking in the mountains is free and it always will be, and camping at a camp site with all the facilities he needs is also pretty affordable. But spending some low-cost vacation with me was apparently not attractive enough to take some days off. Such a clash of basic values that could only end up in a break-up.
I asked him once what he was dreaming of. I wanted to know how he imagined our future life together, how many children would he like to have, where to live, and how much money he would need to live the life the way he likes. Not surprisingly, money was the answer to everything. When I have the money, we will see. ‘How much?’, I kept pushing. ‘How will you know that you have enough? Will you stop overworking and start living then? How long are we going to wait?’. Silence.
That was the answer that opened my eyes. All he wanted was to make money or die trying. It was all about chasing the rabbit without catching it. His toxic relationship with money was depriving him of life, but he didn’t see it. For him, wealth was worth a great sacrifice. For me, not quite.
What if I spend the whole life struggling to get wealthy, believing that it will give me happiness? What if I waste my life striving for financial success and die young as my Dad did, without having a chance to truly live it and experience its beauty?
Money is important, but satisfaction and fulfillment that a job gives you can’t be overlooked.
Can Money Really Buy Happiness?
The answer to this question is not as obvious as it seems…
So, can money really buy happiness? Absolutely! Money makes so many opportunities available to you, and YES, it solves many problems. I very much understand why not making enough to live can make people feel depressed. It’s not fun to be counting every penny, not being sure that you will make it till the beginning of next month. Poverty is often the cause of unhappiness, and money can buy happiness.
But only to a certain point. According to research, the limit is $75,000. It is enough to cover for the basic and not so basic needs of a family. Interestingly, over this amount, people don’t get any happier. The more they have, the more isolated they become. Let’s take Mark Zuckerberg, for example. Facebook spends $5m on his security. The guy is so paranoid that he bought all the lots around his house to isolate himself from the world and possible assaults on his life. Instead of envying him wealth, I really pity him.
Have you ever heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? If not, here it is.
We rely on money to cater for our most basic needs: food, shelter, medicines. sex. When our physiological and safety needs are covered for, we move to the next level of the pyramid. But money will not buy acceptance, love, real friendship or self-fulfillment. From the top needs, it may give you an illusion of confidence and respect.
If money doesn’t make you happy, you are probably not spending it on the right things, or earning it in a way that is incompatible with your values. Research shows that money is well spent, when we pay for experiences or invest in our personal growth.
A rise of salary makes you ecstatic for a week or two. Afterwards, it’s just your salary and you become used to it, craving more and more. A new item may make you happy for a moment, but there will always be somebody who’s got a better car, a bigger house, or a newer iPhone. Investments into services and products that have a short-term impact on you are pretty useless when it comes to achieving happiness. However, if you use money as a tool to provide yourself with the right sort of experiences, you’re very likely to be happier than when buying things. Comparing your experiences with other’s experiences is pointless, right?
Can money really buy happiness? Well, the most important and valuable things in life are priceless and free of charge. Marylin Monroe’s quote saying that happiness is not in money, but in shopping, was never further from the truth. Buying things can’t fill in an emotional void of a child whose parents never had the time to be there for him. When you’re depressed, things are pretty useless. Even items you have always dreamed about don’t bring you joy.
While money does not buy happiness itself, it certainly makes life more enjoyable, if spent on the right things. The question is, how much is enough for you. If you are reading this, it means that you are literate, possess an electronic device and have access to the internet. This already places you within the 20% of world’s financial elite.
During my travels, I met people that live happily possessing not even a half of what I have. The secret is that they live in a sustainable way.
By this I am not telling you to quit your job right away because you don’t need the money to be happy. Don’t get me wrong. Neither am I saying that one doesn’t need money or that it is pathetic to struggle for it. I am only saying that money itself shouldn’t be the driving force in your life, because it won’t cover your higher needs.
For those of you asking yourself what to do with your money to be happier, I’ve got some suggestions. Go on a road trip and meet people. Sign up for dance classes. Help somebody in your neighborhood. Invest in self-growth and therapy. Learn a foreign language. Pay somebody to do stuff for you, so you can be with your kids. The best gift for your children is not another toy, but spending some quality time together doing fun things.
If you have read right till the end, dear stranger, I wish you happiness regardless of the value of your possessions.
PS. For more interesting insights about relationship with money and values in the modern consumerist world, I recommend you read Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps To Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Vicky Robin. Contrary to other books about financial success, this one offers a completely new perspective on making a living. This road map to a sustainable lifestyle reminds you of how much you already have and suggests changes you can introduce in your life to improve its quality. Get it on Amazon and start living your life to the fullest.
PPS. If you have arrived at a conclusion that you may have to change your job to make your life more sustainable, read about this work from home job.