This isn’t a post for those who are eking out a marginal living in an economy characterized by an increasing income inequality gap. It’s aimed at those of us who are at least comfortable that we can meet our basic needs in the hierarchy. [Maslow] So, if we accept the proposition that we don’t necessarily climb up the hierarchy of needs in a linear fashion, what makes us susceptible to measuring our lives by the money we make? What about measuring ourselves by another metric, like money, makes it difficult for us to find personal satisfaction?
5. Missing the signposts. Most major religions have advice pertaining to achieving self actualization and inner contentment. In Christianity it’s Matthew 19:21 “Jesus saith to him: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me. ” One Rabbi’s excellent advice sums up the difference between human wealth and human worth: “The highest degree of kedusha (holiness) is achieved when the mundane and the physical are elevated and are transformed into the spiritual and the sacred.” [Torah.org] In other words, money isn’t the measure, it’s what you do with it that counts — like charity and community service. The lack of an intrinsic class structure within Islam makes the constructions more nuanced, but the message is essentially the same: “Extravagance, waste and general abuse of wealth is the basis upon which the community can consider him a “safih”, a person of weak understanding and one in possession of “weak intellect”; and a person who along with his own financial and moral loss is damaging the interest of the community.” [IR.com] Not to put too fine a point to it, but none of the three major religions on this planet laud the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and those who err in their definitions of wealth and worth won’t (1) find Heaven (2) achieve kedusha, or (3) achieve understanding.
4. Everything we own owns us. Freedom is a difficult thing. There’s a reason we refer to restrictions in life as “baggage.” The more we accumulate the more we worry. The more locks we require. The more insurance we must purchase. The more storage space we need. The more we pay for storage, and locks, and insurance — the more we must earn. Most adults can remember a time when there was a need for a car to get to work and the need to earn money at work to pay for the car. Most people can also appreciate how much stuff can become a burden with each move. How much easier life seems to have been when everything could be hauled in one pick-up load?
3. The more we pay for the less we get. Which is emotionally more satisfying: (a) putting a frozen meal in the micro-wave to cook, or (b) if time permits, cooking a nice meal from scratch, complete with personalized seasonings, etc? When we pay for the micro-wave meal we’re essentially paying someone else to cook it for us. Rarely will it be seasoned to taste. For that matter, if wealth permits we can hire a gourmet chef. However, in doing so we’ve missed half the fun — certainly the meal will be enjoyable, but not the preparation of it. Martha Stewart can certainly afford to hire a cook (chef) but one look at her show’s segment in which she made Christmas goodies with her mother is all the proof anyone should need that the preparation is associated with memories that can’t be purchased.
I remember visiting a home of a family of some means years ago and noticing a lovely French Impressionist painting, complete with its own lighting. The insurance on the painting would likely have been twice my weekly pay at the time. Beneath the painting, perched on an oak cabinet, was a meticulously hand-crafted sail boat with slightly tattered sails made of what probably started life as a bed sheet, paint that was beginning to chip, and threads for rope that were just slightly saggy. My host noticed my interest in the model boat, and proudly announced, “I made that myself, when I was eleven.” And, yes, he got into trouble with his mother for scissoring up one of her better sheets to craft his sails. He never said a word about the painting, and I never asked. The message was reasonably clear: In case of fire — the painting is insured, Grab The Sail Boat!
2. You can’t win when the goal posts are moving. Satisfaction is a moving target. Most people feel losses more intensely than gains. If we put these two sentences together what comes of the combination is the notion that we will be less likely to be rational about situations in which we see a declining increase as a loss. This form of pain was evident recently when some Wall Street traders threatened to quit if their bonuses were cut. [HuffPo] The bankers were upset, even though overall compensation levels may increase, and some employees will be out of work as a result of corporate cut backs.
Actual losses will be the most acute for those who measure their worth by wealth. However, decreasing increases may be almost as painful for those whose expectations were out of line with the corporation’s bottom line. There is certainly no sense of achievement (much less actualization) to be had when expectations are unmet, and whatever plans a person might have had for the increased wealth float back into illusions. The individual who saw a reduction in a bonus may report he is in just as much “pain” as the person who lost his job — a conclusion we might draw from the fact that some bankers were prepared to give up jobs if their expectations could not be met.
1. The best things in life really are free. Man is a social animal. That which improves our relationships with others improves our own lives. That which detracts from our sense of community, sense of family, and sense of belonging is obviously a negative. It doesn’t cost a dime to give a family member or friend a half hour of time to grouse about a problem. Nor is any expenditure required to enjoy a particularly beautiful sunset with a friend or relative. Unfortunately, there’s research indicating that those who measure their self worth by wealth don’t avail themselves as often of opportunities to be altruistic, charitable, or generous — three things that enhance a sense of belonging in almost all members of the human race.
“Shoulders to cry on,” “Putting Heads Together,” and “Lending A Hand,” are usually very inexpensive activities, but generally far more valuable than “writing a check.”