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Money doesn’t talk, it swears – Bob Dylan

The fact is that we either have our money, or our money has us.
Other than crunching numbers to make predictions, we are very unlikely to explore our relationship with money, says the author. Image: Shutterstock

The current pandemic is providing us with a golden opportunity to examine and renew our relationship with money. Although we are quite practiced at worrying and strategising about money, we seldom reflect on our connection to it. As a result, we usually assume that we need as much of it as possible.

The truth is that we either have our money, or our money has us. It’s the old adage that money is a good servant, but a poor master. When we fail to establish a relationship with money on our own terms, our money has us. And when our money has us, no amount of it can meet our true needs, such as the wellbeing, freedom and meaning that we are actually looking for.

What is the magic number?

So how much do we need for optimal wellbeing?

Most financial analysis is based on the amount of money we need to earn and save to pay for the lifestyle we want. This can be useful, and is easy to calculate. So whenever we meet with our financial advisor, our focus is on this calculation.

But what if we changed the question and asked how much money do we need to enjoy optimal wellbeing?

This is clearly a much more complex and personal question. As a result, we usually avoid it.

In January 2018, Nature Human Behavior published data from a Gallup World Poll (a survey of more than 1.7 million people from 164 countries) to put a price on the cost of living a life of optimal emotional wellbeing. The magic number per annum varied widely by region, ranging from US$35 000 in Latin America to US$125 000 in New Zealand. But the most fascinating finding was not these numbers, but rather the fact that beyond the US$95 000 mark, there is not merely no further increase in emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction, but in fact a decline.

You are in good company if you are wondering how an increase in income can lead to a decrease in emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction.

So let’s look at the reasons for this.

The first is that on a psychological level, our happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t feel satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. As Yuval Noah Hariri writes in Homo Deus: “ … the bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon”.

“Dramatic improvement in conditions, as humankind has experienced in recent decades, translate into greater expectations, rather than greater contentment.”

When Professor Mark Williams from Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry was asked why it is that depression has taken on endemic proportions over the last half a century, despite the fact that we have made significant advances in every measurable metric we can think of, he provides the same answer. Most of us live our lives against a backdrop of goals. These goals concretise our expectations of ourselves.

So when, for example, a surgeon has a goal of saving seven lives per week and he saves seven, he does not experience satisfaction from this. Instead he experiences relief that he has made his target. Over time, this lack of experiencing satisfaction and meaning leads to depression.

The pressures of expectations

What both Williams and Hariri point to is the hedonic treadmill. We acclimate to our good fortune and automatically adapt our expectations thereafter. The human mind cannot help itself but to constantly do a gap analysis between what we have on the one hand, and what we could or should have on the other. When it comes to money, we constantly compare our income to what others are earning, or what we think we could or should be earning.

But these ever increasing expectations condemn us to a Sisyphean existence, where we can never quite get there. Because of our constantly adjusting expectations, we lose our ability to experience satisfaction with what we do have. Instead, at best we experience mere relief that we have made it through another month.

The second reason for the ‘more money, less wellbeing’ paradox is that we don’t use surplus wealth in ways that increase our wellbeing. This lack of investment in exploring and pursuing what really matters to us, makes us in turn more vulnerable to the hedonic treadmill.

By avoiding questions such as ‘What matters most to us?’ and ‘How much money is enough for us to enjoy optimal wellbeing?’, we are allowing the tail (money) to wag the dog (humanoid). We are forgetting that money is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

 Why do we avoid looking at our relationship with money?

It is interesting that we are more unlikely to talk openly about money than any other topic under the sun. Our culture has moulded us to avoid the topic as far as possible. We may pass the odd remark to complain about money or comment on someone else’s position. But other than crunching numbers to make predictions, we are very unlikely to explore our relationship to it.

This is actually perfectly understandable because exploring our relationship with money is complex, murky and very personal.

It is a lot more familiar for us to constantly worry about or strive to make more money than, for example, to:

  • Examine what is really most important to us;
  • Be honest about what our constant striving for more money is doing to our health and energy levels;
  • Figure out what is meaningful work to us;
  • Reflect on how our relationship with money affects our relationships;
  • Get clear on what we don’t actually need;
  • Muster up the energy and acquire the skill to tackle transitions; or
  • Confront our own thinking traps about money.

We have proven methods to earn and save money and there are lots of metrics for these exercises.

This is not the case for tackling our relationship with money and, as a consequence, we avoid attending to it.

Yet according to Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware the top two regrets people have when they die are not that they made more money but rather that: ‘I wish I lived for myself more’ and ‘I wish I didn’t work so hard’.

But the great news is that there is lots of research and expertise out there to assist you with this.

Money doesn’t have to be a swear word.

The clearer you are about your relationship with it, the easier it will be for you not to be at its mercy.

Here is a set of reflection questions to kick-start your journey:

  • What does money represent to me? Is it survival, status, security, abundance, self-worth?
  • Do I believe in abundance or scarcity?
  • Is money a means to an end or has it become an end in itself for me?
  • Am I more likely to reflect and talk openly about almost anything other than money?
  • Am I reluctant to admit that I want more money?
  • What makes me feel guilty about the money I have?
  • How much is enough for me?

Jackie Wilken is a business coach and member of faculty at GIBS Business School. Her areas of specialisation are business strategy, leadership development and personal mastery. She can be contacted at jackiew@mweb.co.za for a free copy of ‘The top 10 traps about money’.

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Surprisingly good article. The real word for our modern society’s attitude to money is greed. Love of money.

Just become a so-called pastor and watch the money roll in!

More articles like this please

Amazing article. Extremely thought-provoking and well written.

End of comments.

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