You Will Never Have Enough Money

I want you to consider the following categories in terms of how much you value them as part of living a meaningful life. Assign a point value to each of them so that they total to one hundred. If it helps, you might imagine a pie chart with a larger piece of the pie signifying something that is of greater value to you.


Family -

Health -

Wealth -

Spirituality -

Intellectual Growth –

Total: 100

Now I’d like you to consider what percentage of your average day or week is spent in pursuit of each of these goals. Assuming a 16-hour day, if you consistently spend two hours a day reading and learning new things, you would assign a value of 12.5 to “Intellectual Growth” (since 2/16 = 12.5) and so forth. Go ahead and do that now.


Family –

Health –

Wealth –

Spirituality –

Intellectual Growth –

Total: 100

Compare your stated values with the way you actually spend your time. Any surprises? If you’re like most people you probably noticed some startling discrepancies between the person you’d like to be and the person you are. After all, you vote with your time and behavior is a much better predictor of who you’re becoming than are your values. So why are we so hypocritical with ourselves?

Part of the answer is born of necessity. The 40 + hour workweek is a cultural norm that is a vestige of the industrial era. Although it has little relevance (I would argue) in the new knowledge and service economy, the fact is, if you work for someone else you’re likely to have an 8 to 5 schedule. This reality, paired with an ever-more-sprawling American landscape and the omnipresence of cellular devices, means that we spend a lot of time working, getting to work, or communicating with work. But a second, bigger reason we become so ensconced in our work is that we think that making money is the shortcut to a happy, meaningful life.

All of the things we profess to value more than money take a backseat to making a buck, since we assume that the latter will facilitate the former. We’ll have time for prayer and meditation once we don’t have to grind out a living. We’ll spend time with the family when we can finally afford to take them somewhere nice on vacation and we’ll start working out once the busy season is over. All the things that would truly make us happy get put on hold as we labor under the notion that money will make it all right. Research shows that nothing could be further from the truth.


We’re all familiar with the term “keeping up with the Joneses” but it’s doubtful that we understand just how deeply ingrained this is in our concept of wealth and success. Each year, a Gallup poll asks Americans to determine “What is the smallest amount of money a family of four needs to get along in this community?” Gallup finds that the answers to this question moves up in line with average incomes of the respondents. In a developed country like ours, the notions of “relative wealth” and “relative poverty” are very much at play.

No doubt there is true hunger, poverty and want that does go on in our country, and that is not to be minimized. But among the middle and upper socio-economic classes, people tend to look to others to determine whether or not they are successful rather than pointing to some static measure of wealth. Studies show that the most noticeable way in which money impacts happiness is negatively! We see that the very rich enjoy a slight bump in happiness given their comparative superiority, but the “have nots” are made absolutely miserable as they look up at their better resourced counterparts. Given that the increase in happiness is slight and that the rich make up a small fraction of the total population, in general, the tendency to view money in comparative terms is the source of a great deal of woe.

Given our tendency to compare our own incomes with what others have, we only feel better off if we move up relative to those with whom we compare ourselves. Thinking of wealth creation in this comparative light, it becomes a contest where your gains are tantamount to my losses and vice versa. In this paradigm, my striving for a greater income and working longer hours has decreased your happiness in aggregate. In a very real sense, we are attempting to climb to the top of the corporate ladder on the backs of those with whom we interact, and in so doing, we are sacrificing a great deal of what would really make us happy along the way. Given this human tendency to compare and construe wealth in relative terms, it’s easy to see how the work/life balance we are constantly striving to achieve continues to shift increasingly toward work. After all, if we take a break, the people with whom we are comparing ourselves will be that much further ahead in the race upon our return. As long as work remains a “You win, I lose” scenario, our relationship with our fellowman will be strained at best as we continue to push each other in the direction of greater and greater imbalance.

The American tendency toward outward displays of wealth and comparative measurement is not endemic to all developed countries. Switzerland is just one example of a very wealthy country with a diametrically opposed philosophy relative to showy wealth. As opposed to the American mantra of, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” the Swiss take an “If you’ve got it, hide it” approach so as not to provoke envy in others. The Swiss approach demonstrates that our views are an outcropping of a specific way of viewing wealth rather than something fundamental about human nature. It is up to us to determine to support each other on the way to balance and true happiness rather than prodding each other toward jealousy and excess.


Another self-delusional variant of chasing money for happiness is the “I’ll stop slaving away at work when I reach xyz number.” Your magic number may be a salary figure (“If I could just make $??? I’d be happy”) or it may be a wished for dollar amount to have in the bank. But, whatever it is, I can promise you that when you get there, it won’t seem like enough. You see, we are not conditioned to think of money in terms of “enough,” as one of my clients once said to me, “Doc, you can never be too rich or too skinny.”

The scientific name for this phenomenon is the “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation”, referring to the fact that we must make more and more money to keep our level of happiness in the same place. What tends to happen is that our expectations rise and fall with our earnings (as well as other circumstances in our life), keeping our happiness at a relatively stable place. To demonstrate this effect, I’d like for you to consider two groups, that seemingly have little in common – paraplegics and lottery winners.

We would hypothesize that one year after the life changing event, lottery winners would be much happier and paraplegics would be much sadder, right? But this is simply not the case. One year after their respective events, it makes little difference whether you are riding in a Bentley or a wheelchair – happiness levels remain relatively static. Why? We tend to overpredict the impact of external events on our happiness. One year later, paraplegics have found out their accidents were not as catastrophic as they may have feared and have coped accordingly. Similarly, lottery winners have found out that having money brings with it a variety of complications. No amount of spending can take away some of the tough things life throws at each and every one of us. As the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” In much the same way, we tend to project forward to a hypothesized happier time, when we have more money in the bank or are making a bigger salary. The fact of the matter is, when that day arrives, we are unlikely to recognize it and will simply project forward once again, hoping in vain that something outside of ourselves will come and make it all better.

A recent Princeton study set out to answer the age-old question, “Can money buy happiness?” Their answer? Sort of. Researchers found that making little money did not cause sadness in and of itself but it did tend to heighten and exacerbate existing worries. For instance, among people who were divorced, 51% of those who made less than $1,000/month reported having felt sad or stressed the previous day, whereas that number fell to 24% among those earning more than $3,000/month. Having more money seems to provide those undergoing adversity with greater security and resources for dealing with their troubles. However, the researchers found that this effect (mitigating the impact of difficulty) disappears altogether at $75,000.

For those making more than $75,000 individual differences have much more to do with happiness than does money. While the study does not make any specific inferences as to why $75,000 is the magic number, I’d like to take a stab at it. For most families making $75,000/year, they have enough to live in a safe home, attend quality schools and have appropriate leisure time. Once these basic needs are met, quality of life has less to do with buying happiness and more to do with individual attitudes. After all, someone who makes $750,000 can buy a faster car than someone who makes $75,000, but their ability to get from point A to point B is not substantially improved. It would seem that once we have our basic financial needs met, the rest is up to us.

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