Part of money’s power lies in its ability to evoke certain concepts. You hear the word money and you think of success, happiness, perhaps of Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Dubai and the $1.3 million he spent on erotic fountain pens. Because isn’t wasting a load of money on meaningless objects the rite of passage to a happy life? For some people, just the idea of money seems to suffice; at the Trang Tien Plaza in Hanoi, Vietnam, couples are known to pose in front of luxury-brand shop windows on their wedding days. The ways in which we glorify money and what it entitles are endless; the importance bestowed on money is limitless.
To say that we live in a consumerist society would be putting it lightly. However, money does not just show our ability to afford material goods. It used to be that money was a means to an end, a medium of exchange to barter for tools and services indirectly. But now money has become an end itself. It has transformed into a symbol of who we are as people. The things we commonly associate with money, such as success and happiness, have trapped us in a myopic mindset of cause-and-effect in which money is the cause, and happiness and success are the effects. Since the latter two are intangible, we presume happiness and success exist if money is present.
We also expect people to judge us based on how much money we have—and more is better. If a man happens to have millions in savings, we conjecture that he is a successful man who is quite happy with his life, despite what his inner struggles may be. Money, however, is not representative of who we are, nor is it a one-way ticket to happiness.
The Easterlin Paradox, a concept introduced to happiness economics in 1974, explains that increased wealth does not correlate with increased happiness in the long run. Cross-sectional studies demonstrate that richer countries are not necessarily happier than poorer countries. This suggests that income and wealth may not be particularly suitable measures for happiness. And what about prosperity? Does bathing in cash still mean one is prosperous when one’s emotional or mental life is not intact?
Those researching the Easterlin Paradox began to consider other factors when measuring happiness, such as health, marriage, and religion. They found that marriage boosts men’s wellbeing although women’s is unaffected. The tight friendships built during church attendance help create a boost in happiness, as well.
The 2014 Legatum Prosperity Index defines prosperity as a combination of wealth and wellbeing and addresses additional factors such as health, sense of security, and personal freedom. The idea behind this is that since happiness entails wellbeing, factors that contribute to our wellbeing also contribute to our overall happiness. Money is then but a small factor among many that help secure happiness.
The interesting thing about happiness economics is its aim to define and quantify qualitative terms like prosperity and happiness. Does prosperity refer only to a country’s GDP? If income is not the only measure proportional to happiness, what else is? The common idea that defines “rich” as possessing large sums of aggregated money and material assets must be readdressed.
There exist many different mediums through which we can also find fulfillment. Art, history, language, and culture are just some of the unlimited resources on which we can feast. We can be rich in knowledge, talent, experience, and many other equally substantial and valuable intangibles. A person whose life is built around travel, extreme sports, or immersion into new settings is rich in experience. A person who devotes one’s life to studying is rich in both knowledge and passion. The term rich can designate a much more complex and lasting type of wealth. We can be rich in certain post-materialistic values that are of equal or higher value than a flimsy piece of paper.
A dirty scrap of paper that has touched one too many hands has only the value we confer to it. Money is just that: paper. Sure, that special blend of paper may represent economic stability, hard work, and maybe some inner peace. But it does not account for other equally important factors that contribute to a meaningful and satisfying life. The problem isn’t with money itself; the problem is with our conception of money and the importance our consumerist society bestows upon it. Like novelist Chuck Palahniuk once said: “The things you own end up owning you.” Dependence has rendered us needy in the face of such prominent aspirations of wealth, but wealth does not just signify money, and we’d do well to remember that.