Do you ever think about how connected money and self-esteem are?
Many of our interpersonal anxieties and social problems revolve around a dysfunctional belief that money is a measurement of fairness, equality, and human value.
There’s a very interesting strain of economic research showing that our sense of well-being is determined more by our relative wealth than by our absolute wealth.
In other words, we care less about how much money we have than we do about how much money we have relative to everyone else. In a fascinating survey, Cornell economist Robert Frank found that a majority of Americans would prefer to earn $100,000 while everyone else earns $85,000, rather than earning $110,000 while everyone else earns $200,000.
Think about it: People would prefer to have less stuff, as long as they have more stuff than the neighbors.
The point — and this is still a nascent field — is that a nation may be collectively better off (using some abstract measure of well-being) with a smaller, more evenly divided pie than with a larger pie that’s sliced less equitably. Reasonable people can and should argue about that.
Why are we so obsessed with measuring ourselves against everyone else?
This isn’t about one family living in abject poverty and another in opulent wealth. This is about being unhappy because your cousin has a three-car garage – and you only have a two-car garage– but you’d feel much better if he only had a one-car garage.
How do we end up acting against our own self-interest? Is it human nature? Or are we conditioned to behave this way?
This thinking works against your own self-interest because the root of all our material desires is the emotional desire to be happy. If someone else’s wealth prevents you from being happy, you do not control your own well-being – they do. Until you change your thinking, you are doomed to an unhappy life.
You see, this study reminds us that we are less interested in what we have and what we are doing than we are in what they have and what they are doing. This conundrum creates unease, negative emotions, and enslaves us.
How can you be free if your happiness is dependent on getting more than everyone else?
What bothers me even more than this misguided value system is the implied fix; since Dick and Jane have a Corvette and 6000 sq ft house and I don’t, I need the government to insure they don’t get those things so I don’t feel bad about myself.
Think about the insanity of this statement…
I want people to stop producing more wealth than me. It pisses me off, and I might go out and do something anti-social if someone doesn’t fix it.
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for me to stop envying Dick and Jane, and learn how they acquired those things instead? Then maybe I could learn how to get them too.
Only when you spend life’s journey being grateful for what you have now – will you be able to enjoy what happens next.
When I mentioned this study to several groups of people, the subject seemed to cause them discomfort. No one likes to think they harbor emotions like greed, envy, or jealousy. But most of us must. In the US, virtually everyone has what they need to survive. Beyond that, everything serves an emotional need.
I realized that when I resent someone else’s bonus or their new house, I am behaving petty and infantile.
So I decided to stop evaluating myself based on how much money I make relative to my neighbors and friends. I know how much money I need to reach my goals and I have that goal written down and etched into my mind. Some people will have more than I have and other people will have less, and that doesn’t bother me.
I know only I can prevent me from earning the amount of money I need to reach my goals.
And you know what… I am much happier than before.