Money, happiness and human needs

In many Western societies, somebody declared that the pursuit of happiness is job number one. Everything we do should be in service to making ourselves feel happier. Closely followed by follow your passion, and other such platitudes. It starts early in life, with parents applying pressure to the experience of a child growing up. The organized group activities are part learning and part socializing, led by overly enthusiastic adults. The quest for happiness ratchets up into expectations for school and especially work life. Happy is how people are meant to feel in all social situations, all of the time.

Does money play a role in determining how happy we will be? The old saying goes, ‘money does not buy happiness’. However, if your early life was spent in organized activities and good schools, you might be set up to expect a type of life where a certain amount of money is required. It is a shock to many students who have come from this cushy lifestyle and find themselves living on a measly budget and working like a dog, once they graduate from university. At that point in your life, money would certainly buy happiness.

Anyone who does not have enough good food to eat, or proper shelter would experience a lift from a windfall of cash. Yet, there are people with plenty of resources who are extremely unhappy. So the secret solution is likely not possible to copy and paste from one person to the next. It is a custom arrangement.

Of course, a constant state of happiness is not possible. I might argue that understanding what bliss feels like is not possible without experiencing emotions on the other end of the scale. Those so-called negative emotions of depression, fear, anger, and sadness are meant to be overcome, not felt. It causes dismay if you walk into a room with anything but happiness written on your face or expressed in your body language. Something is wrong in showing this side of ourselves and therefore it must be fixed, as soon as possible.

If the pursuit of happiness is so important and money can’t buy it, recognizing what cash will provide is probably an important stepping stone. Anthony Robbins identified 6 basic human needs which he believes drive all behaviours. Once these needs are satisfied at healthy levels, happiness or at least satisfaction is at hand. When the quest for certainty and significance overtakes a person, the balance tips out of proportion. All sorts of problems can ensue.

Connection, love and belonging is a state which all people need. Brene Brown describes this best in each of her books, where she unravels a bit more of the mystery around shame and vulnerability. I am reminded of a quote from my childhood, ‘Keep children short on pocket-money and long on hugs’. Clearly money will not buy love. This is the deeply emotional work of relationships, at all levels of life. From our interactions with a random sales associate or fellow commuter to our deepest personal love bonds. How we conduct ourselves and experience all human connections informs our level of happiness. Money can’t help build connection to other people. This is intense emotional work.

“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
― Brene Brown

Significance can be obtained in many ways. Status, which money helps to achieve is one way of being significant to another person. But the type of status which can be bought is shallow and hollow. Anyone who covets another person’s status is elevating significance to a dangerous place. This is a breeding ground for envy and jealousy, hinged by ego. By elevating significance above connection, we will never achieve happiness when it truly matters. It is in our relationships with other people that we rally around each other in hard times, lifting each other up. This cannot be bought or forced.

Variety is a noun which means the quality or state of being different or diverse; the absence of uniformity, sameness, or monotony. Tony Robbins also describes this an uncertainty, which can cause anxiety in some due to the lack of control. If some activity or situation is new and different, predicting the outcome is challenging for people who seek certainty. For those who are spontaneous and live for variety, not having enough of it can feel like your life force is being drained. Money can buy experiences of variety, but if you are not open to being or doing something different, the money is immaterial. Going on a trip, which may bring some strain and pressure along with a healthy measure of novelty, isn’t worth the money if it feels stressful.

Certainty is a need to know what the future holds and control the variables, as much as possible. Taken to an extreme, the need for certainty becomes a dark side of a personality, casting a long shadow over how we think and act. I have lived a good chunk of my life here. I thought if I dress rehearsed tragedy, I could protect myself from feelings of grief and sadness. There are a couple of flaws in this way of thinking. First, overcoming negative emotions builds resilience and confidence. As well, there is no way to prepare for the really bad stuff that will happen in life. So by dress rehearsing tragedies which are the best that your imagination can dream up, you are robbed of experiencing joy in the moment. Brene Brown taught me all that.

Growth is something I like to visualize in terms of building a muscle. By eating the right diet, exercising effectively and getting enough sleep, (to name a few factors at play), muscles on the human body will slowly grow. The changes take a long time and are not easily recognized by the eye. Often, people stop trying and quit in frustration. Personal growth works the same way. The changes are earthworm slow and it is not until a significant amount of time has passed that the effects can be felt. Most people don’t possess that amount of patience. Which is probably why the bullet journal system is becoming so popular. (Each person creates a simple chart to track all sorts of aspects of their lives, effectively creating personal statistics.)

Contribution and creating legacy are actions which come to life after a bunch of other stuff is taken care of. At least that is how it has happened for me. I was so deeply concerned with having enough for myself and my family that I couldn’t see beyond that pursuit. While I recognized that I was much better off than most people, I still wanted more. Money weighs heavy here, for if we are in the scarcity mindset, no amount of cash is enough. Yet, when we are able to think about solving interesting problems for ourselves and then for other people, we are able to contribute to society in a profound way. The long-term effect of this type of contribution is an enduring legacy.

I like to look at these core values on a continuum. Some days I am making progress and other days I am standing still or sliding back. I have not yet tried to measure myself, even as a baseline. Maybe I should. Just like when I started exercising and created a chart for each data point I wanted to track. The problem with that is the fluctuations. Some days the expected progress seems too slow to perceive. That can be demoralizing. It is hard to remember that we are organic beings. In nature, there are no smooth straight lines. A human trajectory is a jagged line, trending towards a destination. Like a river, we can even flow back, seemingly away from the proper path in order to get where we are going. It is really hard to accept this truth sometimes.

Does money buy happiness, then? I’m not sure. I think money allows people to get somewhere quickly. I think money amplifies life. But, there can be unexpected consequences. Money is often harder to control than we plan for. I think big changes in personal wealth, either by coming into money or experiences a financial set back, can be equally distressing. If we are not practicing a healthy relationship with money, fluctuations will show the weaknesses in our planning. Most people didn’t take the time to learn, when they were young, how to manage their personal finances in a good way. It is not surprising as the same can be said for the state of personal health.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel like I could manage more money. At least I feel capable. Do I have a well-researched plan? No. Should I? Probably yes. Because accumulation of money, like all things in life happens slowly! Probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. If our habit is to not save for the future, right from the start; back at that first job in school, the future will come and we will not be ready for it. Of all the stuff we learn in school, I really wish an entire course was dedicated to the concept of money.

Happiness, on the other hand is a practice I am getting much better at. My feelings of satisfaction in life have little to do with money. I have proven to myself that I am capable of generating an income when I want to. The next challenge is to figure out how to experience heightened happiness alongside work which serves other people and solves interesting problems. I have faith that, in time, money will flow from that endeavour as well.

Thank you for reading my thoughts on creativity. Each day, I hope to get a little closer to understanding how to design a lifestyle I don’t need a vacation from. I believe that focusing on the importance of creativity in our daily lives is an important aspect of happiness and ultimately wellness.


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