I just read a very thought provoking article, Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy by Bill McKibben. The author argues that pursuing more wealth worked well in the past when we didn’t have much material wealth but now that we are a relatively wealthy nation, pursuing more and more wealth is making us less happy not happier. His main points are:
- We are pursuing more and more wealth because it worked in the past,
- We are spending less and less time with family and friends,
We are busier and more isolated,
- And it isn’t working anymore.
He points out that if you are rich in relationships and poor, more money might make you happy, but if you are poor in relationships and have plenty of money, a new friend will make you much happier than more money. If you are a peasant in China with lots of relationships and no money, a little money can go a long way towards making you happier but a sixth person living in your house won’t. On the flip side, if you are an American living in a 2000 square foot house, another friend might make you a lot happier than the money for another coffee maker.
He argues that in the pursuit of wealth, we’ve lost our community. We spend less and less time with family and friends and more and more time isolated: commuting, working, watching tv, surfing the internet. And yet studies show that it’s social networks (the real ones, not the virtual ones) that keep us happy and even healthy. Robert E. Lane, a Yale political
science professor writes that "evidence shows that companionship … contributes more to
well-being than does income."
One point he made that really struck me because I can’t tell you how many people told me that college was going to be the best years of my life and I kept asking, "Why? Does it go downhill from there?" Apparently it does if you look at the quality of your relationships.
Why do people so often look back on their college days as the best
years of their lives? Because their classes were so fascinating? Or
because in college, we live more closely and intensely with a community
than most of us ever do before or after?
Something I read recently said that the number of friends we have drops off dramatically after our 20s. Recently, I’ve realized that I really miss the number of friends I had in my teens and 20s. I did things with large groups of friends several times a week if not every day. Now we are lucky if we squeeze something in once a week. And even when you have time (like when I was on maternity leave), your friends likely won’t have time!
So think about it. Increasing the time you spend with your friends and extended family will do more to make you happy than a raise at work. And I’d even argue it’d make you happier than winning the lottery!
Do rich people make you uncomfortable?
I’ve been surprised lately at how many people say they don’t like rich people. For example, I have massage therapist friends who won’t work on wealthy people (How’s that for a business plan!) because they find rich people’s concerns and troubles just too far removed from what they consider reality. Another example. I have a group of friends that raise guide dog puppies and they are great people. I never realized that they were all pretty wealthy until I invited a friend to a guide dog puppy party and he said he had nothing in common with them. I tried pointing out all the things they had in common (dogs, kids, houses, location, hobbies) and he just couldn’t get over that they were in a different socio-economic group therefore they must not have anything in common!
I wasn’t raised in a rich family but it was rich in experience. Every year I become more aware of how diverse my experience was. I have a friend who also grew up overseas – she’s lived in several different countries and met lots of people and she’s very outgoing. I thought that meant she’d be comfortable in any social situation. So I was surprised when I took her to a country western bar and she was extremely uncomfortable – it was a culture she had never experienced before. She didn’t dance (even though she loves dancing) and she won’t go back.
Growing up not only did I meet farmers as well as city people, I also met rich people as well as poor people. (And for the record, despite the stereotype some farmers are very wealthy.) I have friends who have more family money than I’ll ever have unless I win the lottery and I have friends that barely make it paycheck to paycheck. My dad even used to invite this homeless woman to a cup of coffee every day. So I never knew that people in different socio-economic groups make people uncomfortable. I never considered them different than me – they might have different problems or different priorities because life has dealt them a different deck of cards but they were still people very much like me! It also helps that I know millionaires that wear jeans and drive old pickup trucks and people driving brand new cars that live paycheck to paycheck.
I think people are uncomfortable with rich people because they believe that money will solve all their problems. And if money will solve all their problems then rich people must not have any real problems. Neither is true. Money might enable you to buy clothes and activities for your kids but it won’t teach you how to be a good parent. Money might buy you the right clothes and entrance to clubs but it won’t buy you good friends. Money might give you time to spend with your spouse but it won’t make you a good partner. Money might enable you to go to med school but it won’t make you a doctor. Money can’t live your life for you and while it may make some things easier it won’t solve all your problems. If you were rich, you would still have problems and they would not be trivial.
Rich people are just people too. When you consider what money can do to someone, you might even consider that the rich are people with more problems than average. They can’t blame lack of money for not accomplishing something in life.
People with average net worths of $6.8 million owns homes worth $545,000. Since the average price of a home in the US is $264,540, I think we can safely say the rich don’t necessarily spend lots of money (percentage wise) on their homes. Maybe it’s because they didn’t want to spend all the money on the bills a big home generates – they wanted to save and invest their money.
On the other hand, I know several people with $500,000 homes that have no where near $6 million in net worth. Those big homes are one of the reasons they will never have $6 million!