Money and happiness

Does money add happiness to your life, or subtract it? Could you learn how to use money as an aid to your happiness? Is it possible to “get better” with money, so that we trust in our ability to earn enough of it, don’t spend it unconsciously and thoughtlessly, and invest it in our quality of life?

Money for nothing

We spend a huge chunk of our week, in the middle section of our lives, chasing the dollar. We work until our dreams are replays of conversations with colleagues. We work around our children. We work at home, waiting at the traffic lights, and on holidays.

How much we earn has little correlation with our expertise, experience and passion unless we’re also entrepreneurial, creative, outgoing and decisive. Our society is adept at gushing over the good works of teachers, nurses, childcare works, carers and other helping professionals, while paying them appallingly.

Much focus is put on arguments that we demand “what we’re worth”. Yet these arguments are often derailing, particularly for women, who may get caught up in confidence-boosting exercises and conferences, a lot of self-reflection and self-loathing should things not turn out the way they’d hoped. Self-worth has nothing to do with what you earn. In fact, the “earn what you’re worth” argument can be a dangerous side-track that keeps low-earning people feeling bad about themselves while inflating the egos and decreasing the empathy of high-earners.

Money as an enabler

More money gives us more choices, which can enable greater freedom. With a healthy bank balance, we can choose to take a year off work to travel, establish a vegetable garden, stock our home with high-end art and design pieces, or fly to Zimbabwe. The challenge is to recognise these choices and this freedom.

Unfortunately, for high-earning individuals, the opposite is too often true. We are in the midst of a consumerist epidemic where we no longer recognise that our money gives us choices. Too many people work long hours in jobs they don’t enjoy and spend all their discretionary income on take-away food and high-cost processed foods, childcare and domestic help. Life becomes so frantically overfull that they feel the need for regular, intensive de-stressing in the form of therapy, expensive holidays, wellbeing and relaxation treatments.

Most of us are stuck on a consumer treadmill and don’t see how we can get off. Rather than use money as an enabler towards greater freedom, we become trapped and dependent by our over-spending lifestyles.

“I used to think of money as something like a running fuel supply,” says David Cain of the popular life-improvement blog, Rapitude. “A life simply burns dollars, and if I want a big, fast, high-horsepower life (and who doesn’t?) then I need to be pumping significant quantities of dollars into it on a regular basis. In this context money seemed volatile, short-term and scarce.”

This perspective is common amongst wealthy people, propagated by business philosophy and books such as The 4-Hour Workweek – we can outsource those parts of our lives where someone else is willing to work for far less than we can earn, and concentrate our hours on maximising our earnings while living it up.

Money for time

When the Ford Motor Company announced its intention to implement the eight-hour workday in January 1914, the world rejoiced about progress and civilisation.

Benjamin Franklin predicted a four-hour workweek in the late 1700s. In 1933 the US Senate passed a bill for an official 30-hour workweek (vetoed by President Roosevelt) and in 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour workweek by 1985 and a 14-hour workweek by 2000.

Instead, the opposite has come to pass; working hours around the world, but particularly in the UK, US and Australia, have risen steadily in the last 20 years.

Workaholism is a growing problem and more so in countries such as Japan where “Karoshi”, death by overwork, claims an estimated 1000 lives each year and nearly five per cent of the country’s stroke and heart attack deaths in employees under age 60.

“Workaholism is an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s not the same as working hard or putting in long hours,” says Bryan Robinson, PhD, one of the leading researchers and authors on the disorder. Workaholics’ obsession with work affects their relationships and outside interests as well as their health – in other words, their quality of life.

Hard work and money

The industrial revolution and Protestant religious tenants propagated the view in the West that hard work was both a virtue and a requirement for success. And yet this belief has never been held by the upper class and wealthy, who are far keener on leveraging the labour of others, protecting, maintaining and gaining inheritance, and astute investment.

The old world beliefs about work is that it’s a dirge and a responsibility, a source of both pride in providing for one’s family, as well as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

In recent decades, a new belief system has developed – that work is an opportunity to embody our values, live our passions and a key creative outlet for self-expression. This is particularly the case among young people who are starting enterprises in increasing numbers.
These beliefs extends to our spending habits – with increasing consumer choices, people are spending their money to reflect their values, investing in the visions and values of a company beyond mere transactions for services rendered.

These contrasting beliefs continue to cause tension, not only inter-generational (most obviously seen in the counter-culture, anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s) but also personally. We are influenced and affected by the beliefs of their parents and grandparents which causes internal tension and stress for people who are holding competing beliefs about work. We may believe that we must put in long hours; need to feel passionately about all aspects of our work; that work is hard and challenging; that it’s inseparable from ourselves; that we’re providing for our family; that work is our ultimate self-expression and legacy; that we’d rather be playing.

Within this new world of work, workaholism thrives, but it’s not seen as a bad thing. Rather, if what we do is truly passion-based and a rich and rewarding expression of our beliefs, values and vision for the world, then we can justify spending an inordinate volume of hours at it – hard work is still hard work, but we may enjoy it more.

Using money to buy happiness

For people who don’t derive great satisfaction from their work or who are unclear about their passions and purpose, money tends to spent far more readily to purchase good feelings, whether through fashion, food and drinks, drugs or other items or services that bring pleasure. At the other end of the spectrum are people who hoard their dollars, ever fearful that their money will run out, and tend to worry inordinately over it.
Having a healthy relationship with money falls somewhere between these two.

The rise of the “slow movement” is part of the recognition that mindless consumerism is unhealthy and that happiness is found by taking back our time enjoying activities such as cooking, providoring, gardening and homesteading, arts and crafts, reading and homeschooling.

By this rationale, adept money management is about crafting a life where you spend your time consciously generating good feelings through activities that typically don’t require much, if any, money. This takes the emphasis away from earning money and puts it squarely on spending it, albeit typically spending far less. Whatever “sacrifices” one makes to live a life in the slow-and-rose-smelling lane is seen as far less than what’s gained by stepping out of the race of consumerism.

Happiness and freedom

Feeling or believing that we have little control over our lives creates much unhappiness. Much is outside of our control – something which races into the spotlight during natural disasters or terrorist attacks – but we do control our reactions, responses and attitudes to our circumstances, and numerous studies show this to correlate with our happiness levels. A study by Yale psychologist Judith Rodin, offered nursing home residents a few simple decisions to make about their lives. Eighteen months later, the group who had been offered options (however seemingly insignifant) were not only more alert, active and happy than a control group not offered similar choices  but, surprisingly, had half the mortality rate of 15 per cent compared to 30% for the control group. Believing you have control over your life literally makes you healthier, which directly impacts your quality of life.

This is typically seen through the romantic lens of world travel, but for many people, realising greater personal freedom and heightening their sense of control over their destiny may look like a backyard chicken coop, less television and computer time, and more time with their loved ones enjoying the little extraordinarily ordinary things, for free.

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