Cultural wisdom tells us that money doesn’t buy happiness. We hear this in movies, on TV, and from friends. We read it in books and on motivational posters. We’ve seen the lives of the rich and famous unravel.
Still, most people are inclined to test this hypothesis for themselves.
Below are my recent reflections on money and identity. Let me first acknowledge that how each of us views money depends on our vantage point. Readers will resonate in varying degrees to this message.
A Lens to View Ourselves
Princeton researchers found that money does buy happiness—but only up to $75,000 a year. Additional income doesn’t improve emotional well-being. Having said that, life evaluation (i.e., “how you feel about your life and accomplishments”) continues to rise with income.
Though desire for more money is often associated with greed, it has as much to do with self-esteem. Money is a proxy for security and independence, status and achievement. It’s the primary measure by which we assess our standing. We look to others as benchmarks to answer: “How am I doing in life?”
On the one hand, this reveals a desire to make the most of our resources and opportunities. We can affirm that without hesitation.
On the other hand, a comparison-based identity is unsustainable. We compare upward and grow discontent. We compare downward and become complacent. We compare sideways and run incessantly to keep pace. None of these viewpoints offer lasting peace.
We chase not only success but the veneer of success. It isn’t enough to win; we want others to know that we’re winning. Nor is it enough to make money; we seek the validation of others’ respect. In a sense, we amass wealth and possessions to convince ourselves, as much as peers, of our worth.
Harvard Business Review reminds us that the goal of life isn’t wealth accumulation: “We say ‘you can’t take it with you’ but we behave and judge as though you can.” Remember: he who dies with the most toys still passes on empty-handed.
Shifting Our Focus
The antidote to our rat race mentality is gratitude.
Feeling grateful frees us from benchmarking ourselves against others. It instills in us a quiet confidence, so we stop viewing life as a zero-sum game. To be clear, gratitude isn’t comparing downward and pitying those less fortunate. Nor does it compare upward and discount those more successful.
Gratitude is reflecting on your present circumstance with appreciation.
When we’re running nonstop, there’s little time for introspection. Giving thanks becomes a cursory exercise. Being grateful is but a sigh of relief. We pause for Thanksgiving, only to resume in double-time. True gratitude, on the other hand, is a mindset, not an activity—a lifestyle, not an interruption to it.
A fulfilling life is one of influence, not indulgence. When we’re secure in our identities, we look beyond our interests to the needs of others. We start to recognize the potential impact of our resources. And we connect the two. Thus, money can indeed buy happiness, but not in the way most envision.
Out of gratitude flows generosity. When you give of your resources, you give of yourself. Invest in the well-being of others. It will bring not mere happiness but pervasive joy.
This is the eighth post in our series: Advice for New Graduates.