Nephew: Your theories sound okay on the surface, but I happen to live in the real world.
Uncle: Thank you, Mr Cliché. What are you trying to say?
Nephew: Happiness depends on real things, not philosophies.
Uncle: Give me an example of what the hell you are talking about.
Nephew: Money. We need money to be happy. We need money to ensure we are warm, sheltered, and fed. And to get toothaches fixed. If we don’t have the money to get those things, we won’t be happy.
Uncle: Yes, money can fix problems and prevent unhappiness. But it doesn’t add to our core happiness. It doesn’t raise our level of day-to-day wellbeing.
Nephew: Fair enough. But if money doesn’t bring happiness, why do you work?
Uncle: To not go hungry, obviously. To have toothaches fixed. Is today Silly Question Day?
Nephew: That’s every day.
Uncle: I also work so I can afford Life’s pleasures. And to get satisfaction from the job itself. Don’t assume happy people have no aspirations. Happy people are not like cows content to graze; we enjoy doing, we enjoy achieving.
Nephew: Ah! ‘To afford Life’s pleasures’. There you go! We need money to buy pleasures. You said yourself life would be drab without pleasure.
Uncle: That’s the first kind of happiness, remember? Pleasures give us temporary happiness, not the long-term, day-to-day general feeling of wellbeing. Yes, money can buy us pleasures and alleviate suffering, but it won’t add to our core happiness.
Nephew: It feels like it does.
Uncle: We confuse pleasures with core happiness because pleasures are memorable. Day-to-day life isn’t. So our ability to judge the source of our happiness is skewed.
Nephew: I know someone who is only happy when they shop. Have you heard of retail therapy?
Uncle: Of course I have. The happiness people get from spending their money is the pleasure kind, and temporary. Unfortunately, it reinforces their belief that happiness requires money. And, because they are confusing the pleasure they get from shopping with core happiness, they are afraid that if they stop spending money they will become unhappy. That twisted concept of money begins to rule their lives.
Nephew: I’ve heard that some shoppers buy goods and don’t even open the boxes.
Uncle: Exactly. They waste money, grossly disrespecting the wonderful stuff. Each time they spend they get a little ‘hit’ of happiness, but that hit is brief and unfulfilling. They want a better phone, the latest accessory . . . There is always something.
Nephew: But we don’t have to spend money on items. We can spend our money on having life enriching experiences, on activities that help us grow. Things like music lessons and education. If we can pay for a course in abseiling and gain self-confidence, or if we can pay to see a counsellor, we benefit. Those things cost money.
Uncle: It’s the experience of abseiling which contributes to your confidence, and thus to your core happiness, not the money that paid for it. Not the car which drove you there. Not the equipment. Not the cliff you abseiled down. And, it’s the experience of seeing a counsellor that assists your growth, not the money you paid to see them. Money is wonderful stuff, but it’s just a means. Besides, there are plenty of opportunities to grow as a person without the need for abseiling, or for music lessons, or education, or counselling. They’re waiting for you to grasp them. Look around.
Nephew: But if we need to see a counsellor but can’t afford one, we can’t get our problems fixed. We will remain unhappy.
Uncle: Correct. And if we can’t afford to buy food, or have a toothache fixed, we will be unhappy. As I said, money can fix problems and prevent unhappiness, but it won’t add to our core happiness.
Nephew: Alright then, but we need a decent standard of living to be happy. That requires money.
Uncle: If our core happiness depended on our standard of living we would be far happier than the people who lived centuries ago. Those people had no access to the vast array of comforts and pleasures we have today. If they weren’t stricken with the plague, or starving, or fearful of being invaded, there is no evidence to suggest they were less happy than we are.
Nephew: But surely our standard of living is important! Someone living in a chook shed will be less happy than someone living in luxury!
Uncle: Provided their basic needs are met, that’s not true. We are good at adapting to an environment. Someone living in a palace will, after a while, find the experience nothing out of the ordinary. It’s called ‘habituation’. In fact, people living luxurious lives are disadvantaged, because when they are forced to endure ordinary circumstances, such as an economy seat on a plane, they are particularly inconvenienced.
Kahil Gibran said of our lust for comfort: ‘. . . that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.’
Nephew: But a chook shed? No one could be happy living in a chook shed.
Uncle: Habituation is one reason why some people buy a new car every two years. The thrill of a new car wears off and the owner feels empty. So, to feel good again they buy another new car. But who is the more satisfied: Jill, who feels the need to keep updating her car every two years, or Bill, who contentedly drives the same car for decades?
Nephew: You’re going to say ‘Bill’, aren’t you?
Uncle: Yes. Bill is so satisfied with his driving experience he has no inclination to improve it, whereas Jill keeps becoming dissatisfied with her driving experience.
‘We get used to owning the new lounge suite and it becomes part of the furniture, so to speak. So we need continuous material purchases to maintain the same level of satisfaction.’
Ross Gittins, journalist.
Nephew: That’s all beside the point. Someone living in a chook shed cannot and will not be as happy as someone living in a palace. You cannot dispute that!
Uncle: And yet, I do. It’s the emotional health of a person which determines a person’s core happiness, not their living environment. If luxury really did contribute to a person’s core happiness, then a peasant living in a hut in the cold hills of Mongolia would be less happy than someone living in a Sydney mansion. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that’s the case. Nor am I convinced we are happier than our ancestors, who grew up with rudimentary medicine and no electrical appliances. If people lived in those conditions today we would call them paupers.
Nephew: Why would we call them porpoise? What are you talking about?
Uncle: I’m just saying that people living in much poorer conditions than we do, with a much lower standard of living, can be just as happy as we are. Even happier.
Nephew: Yes, I remember you saying: people in poor countries discover they can handle adversity, so when nothing bad is happening in their life they feel no anxiety. And the less anxiety we feel, the happier we are.
Uncle: That’s right.
Nephew: Where does the porpoise fit in?
Nephew: You said . . . Never mind. I still reckon someone living in a plush house must be happier than someone living in a chook shed.
Uncle: If so, it’s because the person living in a chook shed has poorer emotional health. That would be the only reason.
Nephew: But anyone living in a chook shed would jump at the chance to live in a proper house!
Uncle: Of course they would. We all prefer the pleasures and conveniences a proper house would provide. Hot showers . . a stove . . . electric lights . . . running water . . . I wouldn’t want to live in a chook shed. I love hot showers and all those other things!
Nephew: I know you do. I’ve seen the framed utility bills you have hanging on your walls. They’re your ‘qualifications’ to show how lucky you are to have those amenities.
Uncle: Slightly eccentric, I know.
Uncle: Yes, I would much prefer to live in a house than in a chook shed. But if I had to live in a chook shed and my basic needs were met – warmth, food, shelter – I would initially feel despondent, but after a while I would get used to my new lodgings and my core happiness would return. So would yours.
Nephew: This is so hard to believe.
Uncle: For six years my grandfather lived in a tiny, one-room log cabin. No lights, no running water, no electricity. Certainly no phone or computer. Just an open fireplace and tank water. That log cabin was not much better than a chook shed. Yet he was a happy man.
Nephew: Was he a ‘well’ man?
Uncle: What do you mean?
Nephew: Why did your grandfather live that way for six years? . . . . No, never mind. I can see it runs in the family.
Uncle: What does?
Nephew: Forget it.
Uncle: My point is: provided we aren’t suffering, we get used to our standard of living. Our core happiness doesn’t depend on it.
Nephew: I have heard that we live better than have all the kings of England. Is that true?
Uncle: Yes. You can thank refrigeration, multiculturalism, trade agreements and sophisticated transport systems for that. Also, those kings had to live in cold castles, their travelling options were limited, and heaven help them when they became diseased or injured. But still, I would not conclude that because we live better than the kings and peasants of yesteryear that we are therefore happier than they were.
Nephew: Alright, I’ll try a different tack. A while ago you said we have an innate need to feel safe. Well, money provides financial security. The more money we have, the safer we feel.
Uncle: ‘True financial security is knowing you could handle having no money.’
Uncle: That’s a quote from someone. When some people lose money it feels like they’re being diminished. They’re frightened that if their assets drop below a certain threshold their life will fall apart. So, they try hard to keep above that threshold. Yet no matter how high the threshold, they still feel vulnerable. They worry about how secure their investments are, or how much they would lose in a divorce, or whether or not they’ll be sued. So, they raise the threshold even higher. They lack security. Some people have lost so much money they have been left with only a few million dollars, and have killed themselves in the fear of becoming poor.
Nephew: Even with a few million left?
Uncle: Yes. At no point did they have true financial security. And it’s not just wealthy people. There are people with no money who cannot handle the idea of being poor.
Uncle: Their life falls apart and they end up trying to rob a petrol station. The point is: financial security does not depend on how much money you have, or on how little. It depends on whether or not you feel you could handle having no money. Remember: a big chunk of core happiness comes from feeling you can handle a situation, not from arming yourself against it.
A journalist, Katie Walsh, reported that Mr Cuff, who was on a panel of philanthropists, said he knew a couple with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. When Mr Cuff suggested to the couple that they might give some of their money away they reportedly replied, “we’re worried if we give now we won’t have enough when we really need it.’
Australian Financial Review, 21 June, 2012.
Nephew: Are you suggesting we give our money away?
Uncle: No. Nor am I suggesting it’s bad to be rich. I’m saying: don’t assume that having wealth will give you financial security. It won’t. Only when you become a person who feels you could handle having no money, will you feel secure.
Nephew: What if I am experiencing financial stress? Can I still be happy?
Uncle: I wouldn’t think so, but you wouldn’t be happy with a toothache either. Or with a leg sawn off. Remember, core happiness is about how you feel when nothing in particular is happening; when you’re not experiencing a toothache, and when you’re not under financial stress.
Nephew: Or not having my leg sawn off.
Uncle: Correct. When you develop the feeling that you could handle having no money, you might still suffer financial distress, but you will cope better with that stress and return to your core happiness state sooner.
Nephew: I suppose that goes for the toothache too: if we feel we can handle the pain we are going to fare a lot better.
Nephew: If Joe Bloggs has six kids to raise and educate, he won’t feel comfortable having no money.
Uncle: Nevertheless, if Joe felt he could handle the situation he would feel better. Notice, I’m not suggesting we give away our money, or stop earning it. And I’m not suggesting it’s good to be poor. But if we want core happiness we need to develop the feeling that we could handle such situations. Money is handy for solving problems and relieving suffering. It doesn’t add to our core happiness.
Nephew: How can we get the feeling we could handle having no money?
Uncle: Rough it for a while. Go camping in a tent with just food and water. Nothing else. No lights, no computer, no phone. You will quickly realise that you would hate to live that way for the rest of your life.
Nephew: I sure would!
Uncle: However, stay there long enough and at some point you would also come to realise that if you had to live that way for the rest of your life, you could handle it. At that point you can get back into your Lamborghini and drive back to your mansion, financially secure.
Nephew: Ha. Have you done it? Have you lived in a tent for ages?
Uncle: I was lucky. As a child I spent every school holiday with my family in that log cabin I mentioned, and kept visiting that cabin until I was fifty. I know if I had to live in it permanently, I could. I wouldn’t want to, but I could. That knowledge gives me a feeling of security no amount of money could.
Nephew: You’re mad. Alright then, consider this: let’s say I’m wealthy and that people respect me because of it. That would make me happy.
Uncle: They might respect your money, but that doesn’t mean they respect you. Besides, what you think is respect might well be envy. Given half a chance, they’d swap places with you. Is that the sort of respect you want?
Nephew: Still, they might respect me.
Uncle: If they do, it’s because of your achievements and character, not your money.
Nephew: Having money means you have power.
Uncle: When people respect you for the power you have, it isn’t respect, it’s fear. You then need to ask yourself, why do I want people to fear me? The question then becomes: What do I fear?
Nephew: This is getting too deep.
Uncle: Gain people’s respect by your actions and by your words, not by the thickness of your wallet.
Nephew: If I were rich I would not have to worry about people disapproving of me. I could relax and be myself. That would make me happy.
‘My wealth is four thousand million dollars — do you think I give a stuff about what you personally think? Or anyone else?’
Clive Palmer, Australian investor and politician, 2019.
Uncle: We only discover ourselves, and grow, when people can be feel safe telling us our shortcomings. Their disapproval can be a handy moderator. If we didn’t care what other people thought of us we could end up insensitive, self indulgent, eccentric and isolated. It’s normal and healthy to have to deal with what people think of us. It only becomes a problem when we fear what people think, and moderate our behaviour to please them. Making yourself rich to avoid that fear seems silly. If we fear people’s disapproval so much that we need to be rich to avoid it, we’re hiding from a problem.
Nephew: It’s all psychology with you, isn’t it?
Uncle: Anyway, if people accept what you say simply because you are rich, their view is tainted. Plus, their compliments might be too tempting for you to disregard, which means you have set for yourself a trap.
Nephew: What trap? Succumbing to the yes-men?
Uncle: Yes, man. With all their compliments, the perspective you have of yourself will become wonky. That’s not what you want in life if you are trying to grow. To grow, we first need to see ourselves as we truly are. Only then can we begin to make the right changes.
Nephew: I guess the real freedom is to be yourself regardless of how much, or how little, money you have?
Uncle: Yes. If you think being rich will encourage people to respect you, then you have a few questions to ask of yourself.
Nephew: I still reckon money brings happiness. If I were wealthy I wouldn’t have to work. I could pursue my interests. I could paint, and write, and say all the things I’ve been aching to say. My soul would be nourished and I would significantly contribute to my core happiness. Therefore, wouldn’t having money make me happier?
Uncle: There is no doubt that money is wonderful stuff. It can help charities do their work and it can allow us to do things we think matter. Yes, you might need money to follow your heart and paint your pictures, but you also need an easel, a canvas, paint brushes, paint, time, etcetera. To say your easel is adding to your core happiness would be silly; to say your paint brushes are adding to your core happiness would be silly; and to say money is adding to your core happiness is just as silly. It’s the act of following your heart which is contributing to your core happiness. Those other things: paint, canvas and money . . . are just the means.
Nephew: You seem to be against money.
Uncle: I’m not. My concern is that many people focus on making money in the belief that having lots of it will make them happier. How much happier would they be if they instead focused on following their heart? On doing the things they think matter?
Nephew: Those things cost money.
Uncle: They do cost money. But it will be the act of following your heart that will enrich you, not the money that allowed you to do it. In most instances we don’t need to earn heaps to follow our heart. We don’t need to build a bridge to cross a puddle.
Nephew: What if building bridges is my thing?
Nephew: Money can allow us to flourish. We flourish when we enjoy the luxuries of life: fine food and wine, the Arts . . . the best the world has to offer. Poor people don’t have the opportunity to flourish.
Uncle: I can’t see how a human being can flourish by spending their wealth on luxuries at the expense of not helping blind people in Third World countries see again. How is that flourishing? Thousands of people could flourish at the expense of one senior executive wanting to ‘flourish’ with a new yacht that doesn’t get used. Yes, wealth can aid our ability to discern a good wine from an excellent wine, and to appreciate many other fine things in life, but those abilities are simply that: abilities; they don’t make the person. Just because our abilities flourish doesn’t mean we do. It’s a person we’re building, not an arts catalogue.
Nephew: Fair enough. And I guess habituation plays a big part in dulling the pleasure luxuries provide.
Nephew: Maybe it’s the pyramid thing.
Nephew: When the pharaohs died they had their slaves and animals killed and shoved into the pyramid with them. Along with food and stuff. For the afterlife.
Nephew: We want immortality. If we can build an edifice big enough, an empire big enough, a reputation big enough, a family big enough . . . if we can make an impact so big that our influence remains long after we are dead, then we can feel better about dying. It’s like we’re not really dead.
Uncle: Yes, the empires we build might well be evidence of an innate need to keep living – a need that has gone berserk. But we don’t have to succumb to it. Besides, if you felt the need to establish your identity to such a degree, would that not indicate an emptiness within you? A hole that can’t be filled?
Nephew: I dunno.
Uncle: Anything else to support your view?
Nephew: Yes. With money we don’t have to do boring chores. We can hire someone to do them for us. Surely that will make us happier?
Uncle: We may experience displeasure when having to do a chore. So, by not having to do those chores we avoid displeasure. But we are not increasing our core happiness. We are not becoming happier.
Nephew: Avoiding displeasure sounds pretty good!
Uncle: Some wealthy people can avoid all chores, but that doesn’t mean they’re happier than the rest of us. Remember when I said core happiness comes not from avoiding anxiety, but from learning how to handle it? It’s the same for displeasure: core happiness comes not from avoiding displeasure, but from learning how to handle it.
Nephew: You make this up as you go along.
Uncle: By the way, paying someone to do your chores might create problems.
Nephew: Like what?
Uncle: Someone who no longer needs to do chores might begin to find other parts of their life have become a chore. It’s all relative.
Nephew: Maybe. What about the process of making money? Can that make a person happy?
Uncle: It depends on why the person is making the money. If they’re trying to earn their self-worth then no, they’ll just be like a hamster on a hamster wheel – furiously trying to feel better about themselves, and getting nowhere. Or, if they are trying to alleviate their anxiety about becoming poor, then no, making money won’t rid them of that anxiety. And, if they’re trying to buy status, they’re on that hamster wheel again.
Uncle: Only when we feel we could handle being poor, and feel we no longer need to earn our self-worth, or gain status, will our anxiety dissipate.
Nephew: You haven’t really answered my question: can the process of making money make a person happy? For some people, making money is not about the money, it’s about solving the puzzle of how to make it. That can be fun.
Uncle: So be it. Then it’s not the money making them happy, it’s the process of making it. Big difference.
Nephew: You say money doesn’t make us happy, but studies show that the super rich are happier, on average, than the rest of us.
Uncle: I am sceptical about any study purporting to measure happiness, but let’s assume the claim is true. Then it must be asked: are the rich happier because they have all that money, or because they possess the adventurous spirit and confidence that enables them to make money?
Nephew: The latter?
Uncle: Yes, I would say it’s the confidence they gain from knowing how to make money, and the knowledge that their skills are sharp and could be applied elsewhere in life. That will provide the real satisfaction. It is that self-confidence, that sense of believing in yourself, which is the gold.
‘Wealth is a by-product of dong a good job. The satisfaction doesn’t come from having wealth but from coming up with an idea, seeing it grow and become a success.’
Graeme Wood, founder of Wotif.
Nephew: And I suppose we could also ask: would someone super rich admit to being unhappy?
Uncle: Good question. You also have to consider the problems the super wealthy face.
Nephew: Such as . . . ?
Uncle: Having lots of money can raise a person’s expectations of how happy they should be, and when they aren’t happier, they feel cheated.
Uncle: They also have to worry about kidnaps.
Nephew: And I guess they have to worry about losing their money in bad investments, and looking foolish?
Uncle: Yes. They also have logistical problems protecting their money, and they have to deal with people more interested in their money than in them.
Nephew: And they have to deal with the condemnation, envy and resentment of people not wealthy.
‘Show me someone who thinks that money buys happiness and I’ll show you someone who has never had a lot of money.’
David Geffen, billionaire.
Nephew: Okay, but despite what you say, a lot of people want to be rich.
Uncle: If that’s true, it’s because they mistakenly believe it will make them happier. But I’m not sure what you say is true. For many of us, becoming rich appeals, but that’s all. Most of us are not prepared to rearrange our lives to make it happen. We are not interested enough in being rich to go to all the trouble. We prefer to choose jobs which interest us or pay the bills. Remember, many wealthy people didn’t aim to be wealthy, they just aimed to run their business well, and ended up becoming rich.
Nephew: Is there anything wrong with being wealthy?
Uncle: Not unless you believe property is theft, as did Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. But if you felt the need to be rich, would that not indicate a discontent? An insecurity? If that’s the case, understand that insecurity and address it effectively. Otherwise, you might spend a good part of your life becoming rich and still feel insecure.
Nephew: What if I don’t feel the need to be rich. Is there a problem with being wealthy then?
Uncle: If you don’t feel the need to be rich, being rich shouldn’t be a problem. Just be aware that your core happiness won’t be any stronger with all that wealth, and that while you want something more, you can’t be content with what you have.
Nephew: Are you wealthy, dear, dear uncle?
Uncle: Not even close, dear, dear nephew. But I have my basic needs met and I’m happy. My uncle George was a pensioner. He was standing in a queue at the bank when a little boy asked him, ‘Mister, are you a millionaire?’ My uncle thought about it for a few moments and then answered, ‘I have my home and my car and my dog, and I get to eat three meals a day. Yes, I guess I am a millionaire.’
Nephew: That’s so corny.
Uncle: The fact is, money is wonderful stuff. It can provide pleasures in the form of toys, back massages and theatre tickets; it can eradicate our unhappiness by providing food and shelter, and getting a toothache fixed; it can help us flourish by providing us with an education and with anything else which helps us grow; it can help charities do their work; it can increase our standard of living; and it can help science deepen the breadth of knowledge . . . but money itself will not add to our core happiness.
Nephew: The only thing that really seals it for me is that there are plenty of poor people in the world who are happy, and plenty of wealthy people who aren’t.
Uncle: Then content yourself with that answer.
Nephew: I tell you what: give me twenty dollars and I’ll test your claim. I’ll spend it, and if my core happiness doesn’t increase I’ll concede that you are right.
Uncle: That’s a good idea! And, you give me twenty dollars and I’ll test the claim as well!