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WELL-BEING FOR SALE: $75,000

Scott Byars | February 29, 2016

Why Isn’t Well-Being Our Measurement of Success?

A recent study from the Weatherhead School of Management has some interesting insights into how much happiness money can actually buy. They found that “household income is strongly related to both emotional well-being and a person’s evaluation of their own success in life.”  No surprises there but intriguingly they also found that money has its limits. Well-being increased along with gains in income up to $75k.  After $75K the gains in well-being virtually stopped no matter how much more money was earned.

Curiously however – even with emotional well-being plateauing at $75k – the study participants continued to view their lives as becoming ever more successful as their income increased past $75k.

But I have to ask, if more money isn’t increasing well-being… is that really success? What is the definition of a successful life anyway? To answer these questions we must understand how to use money to meet our needs and ignore culture.  

First of all…it’s not the money.

Money is simply a means to an end.  We use it to meet our needs. So it’s not the money that gives us well-being… it’s how we use it. If it was just the money then why does well-being stop increasing at $75k?  Shouldn’t Donald Trump have about 4 billion times the well-being that I have?

Trump Plaza

We could say there are diminishing returns to money. Because after all having 15 bourbons isn’t as enjoyable as having just one, right? However, this still doesn’t answer the question of why the returns diminish.

They diminish because the needs that are easily satisfied by the things that money can buy are limited. We don’t need to be philosophy geeks who own The Greatest Philosophers of All Time trading card set – (I’ll trade you one Sarte for two Nietzsches) – to know that we need continual access to food, water and shelter to sustain well-being. So, with a bit of coin in our pocket it’s easy to check those needs off the list. But buying well-being after our basic needs are comfortably met becomes increasingly difficult. Hence the $75k mark.

There are no guarantees that $200k or even $2 million will increase our well-being…it’s a crapshoot. After the $75k mark money may or may not help us meet our more complex needs. It depends on how we use it-not just that we have a big stack of it.    

Beyond basic needs, in order to continue to increase well-being we have to focus on more complex needs such as self-esteem or meaning and purpose. However at this point most of us get caught like a deer in the headlights of a jacked up Ford. We have finally reached a level of comfort where we don’t have to worry about putting food on the table or a roof over our heads and then… we don’t know what to do next.

Fear not our culture has the answer: become a success!

Our culture idolizes and reveres wealth. So we equate money with success. It also doesn’t hurt that the money is easy to count and we can use that number to compare ourselves with others. “I’m a millionaire and you are not. I’m more successful than you. Scoreboard.” Therefore people think that they are successful because they have achieved the cultural ideal of success.  But that ideal is ineffective at meeting needs so as the study demonstrates… it produces no well-being.

Two Garden Gnomes Playing Checkers

A more effective measure of a successful life is how much well-being we have. However, well-being isn’t valued in our culture because it doesn’t lend itself to easy comparisons. It’s difficult to count  and impossible to rake into a big pile and sit on top, which makes it almost useless as a yardstick to judge ourselves against others. I guess we could see who has the most twerk in their happy dance and deem them the well-being badass of all time… but that kinda goes against the spirit of the whole thing.

Success isn’t a zero sum game. It’s not about win or lose…or even comparing ourselves to others. it’s about finding peace, contentment and joy in our own lives however we choose to live.

Competition_ScottByarsTo continue to have the kind of success in life that increases well-being it is crucial to understand that well-being comes from meeting our needs.  It’s all too easy to be fooled by money’s past successes at increasing our well-being and assume that more of it will produce the same results. But well-being doesn’t necessarily come from having more money even though that is what we’ve been sold. If we are not achieving greater well-being with money… where is the success?

Money spent on effectively meeting our needs and increase well-being is money well spent. Chasing  money to prove we are the cultural ideal of success is just wasted time.   

Armed with this knowledge we can spend more time on our relationships and less time chasing money.  Now we can focus on helping others in our community. We can spend more time hiking, listening to music, or reading a good book.   

But if we continue to use money to gauge our success in life… it’s probably going to end badly. We’ll eventually come home to empty apartments, failed relationships and herds of cats and dogs who “really understand” us. Please…don’t be that guy.    

A life well lived is a life of peace, contentment and joy no matter the amount of zeros in our net worth.

So where do we find ourselves? Are we, like those in the study, gauging our success in life by how much money we have? Or are we trying to increase our well-being by effectively meeting our needs? If we’re chasing a big paycheck, or calculating our own worth by the personal wealth we have attained, we might be missing out on the real joys in life.