Money – a red herring?

Is money the focus of your life? Some of my friends, and I’m mentioning no names, are so concerned with money that they will crawl over their own children to get it. They constantly compare themselves to others with a bigger house, flashier car or whose kids wear the most expensive designer clothes. So, why am I friends with these people? Well, because I know there is a real, caring person inside each of them, desperate to escape the tedium of their extravagant lifestyle, and that their focus on money is just a symptom of a society that suffers from what Oliver James calls ‘affluenza’.

One particular friend of mine, hates his job in the IT industry but earns a good salary from it so has no intentions of leaving. He goes on three big flashy holidays a year and lives for those holidays, counting the weeks, days and hours until he can set off for the airport.

Still too many of us spend our lives doing jobs we don’t particularly like just so that we can pay the hefty mortgage on a house that we never get to spend any time in. And in order to stay in the running we work long hours, to the detriment of our mental health, our relationships and our family time. Work has crossed the no-mans-land into leisure time with many of us working on Sunday evenings, sitting in traffic jams in the early hours or squatting cheek-to-butt with other commuters on a packed train. No wonder more of us are turning to therapists to help us deal with the strain.

The recession didn’t help matters, and the rise in the number of people who suffer from anxiety and other stress-related conditions due to job insecurities, pay issues and the like testify to the fact that we are feeling very uncertain about our futures. It’s almost like a hoarding mentality, stockpile as much money, property, stuff as possible because we never know what will happen in the future.

The way we live today, bombarded with frequent information updates, technology and material wealth as indicators of living a fulfilling and successful life, may seem upon first impressions to be a vastly superior way of living compared to the way our grandparents lived. They lived simply, with the support of close family or friends but without the competitiveness that abounds today over the latest car or the biggest house extension.

They had a way of pulling together. Marriages were made to last, because divorce was rare. People had closer relationships with their families because they’d stay in the same place for longer – many of them for all their lives. Ease of global travel means that this is no longer the case.

Thankfully some of us are catching on to the idea that if we take a leaf out of our grandparents’ book and live more simply we can gain that sense of control that we yearn for, but don’t have, over our economic situation. Thoreau said that if we can live cheaply then we don’t need to work so much and so we’ll have more energy to nurture our own desires. Stories abound as to the hundreds of families who have made the move from busy city life to relaxing stress-free country living (the rise in property prices, especially in London, has also fuelled this) where the most stressful event is getting the chickens safely tucked up at night.

We’ve relied too long on consumer culture only to realise more recently that it has the opposite effect than what we’d hoped. We’ve been under the illusion that consuming stuff was the path to a better life and being more successful and we’ve been working hard to buy things we don’t actually need. Handing over our credit card to the cashier who in return passes us a bulging carrier bag may bring us an immediate high but studies show that this feeling of exhilaration quickly subsides and, like a particularly potent drug we are left constantly looking to regain that high. Eventually we’ll find ourselves like rats on a wheel spending more time at the office, working harder and eventually burning ourselves out. This hedonistic treadmill is not on the path to happiness we are told over and over yet still too many of us continue to look for meaning in material goods, which can lead to anxiety, stress and depression.

The answer to this according to Roman Krznaric, author of ‘Wonderbox’, is to depend less on the consumption of material goods to fulfil our desires and more on those things that don’t need money – simple acts of kindness, spending more time with friends and family or doing the things that give us a sense of flow or meaning. Yes this does all seem a bit touchy feely and, lets be honest, it’s not easy to change a mindset that has been ingrained since we were pulling toys out of our toy boxes.

Research has shown that connecting with family and friends in times of stress and insecurity can help us to avoid feeling isolated and anxious. It can fill one of our essential emotional needs – to be loved and helps us to face our fears and keeps us emotionally robust.

The circumstances in which many of our grandparents lived, surrounded by real poverty and hardship, was frequently challenging but in those times there was a sense of stability. The purpose of work was to put food on the table, work was not meant to be fulfilling and they didn’t expect it.  These days we are lucky in that we don’t need to work quite so hard to fill our bellies and we have more opportunities to do what we love doing, yet more and more of us are expressing dissatisfaction in our lives because of our stubborn desire for financial gain

We look too much to money to provide meaning and we tolerate stresses and long hours in the hope that it will give us significance and satisfaction. But as Krznaric says “…Incomes have risen in the last half-century but life satisfaction levels have remained the same in most European countries.”

Mihaly Czikszentmihali in his TED talk said that money cannot make us happy, and his studies show that people can find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that allow for spontaneously flow. People report feeling this sense of ‘flow’ when they do activities they enjoy, gardening or painting for instance. It is the state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work that we love. For me it’s writing. I can just lose hours engrossed in the placement of words on a page.  A woman I know helps her husband run a plant nursery. She spends her spare time creating a lovely nature garden for the local pre-school. You can see her almost bouncing her way to the school gates to collect her child each afternoon, she gets an enormous sense of satisfaction from what she does.

Many self-help gurus will tell us that if we have a sense of purpose in our lives from doing the things we love doing then we will bring vitality and meaning into our lives, decreasing our need for and reliance upon money for meaning.

Changing our attitude   Even though many of us know what we need to do to live simpler lives, we are not convinced that it will make a difference to our happiness. There are other reasons too, losing face with our peers, not being able to afford luxury holidays, cars or the latest gadget but if we’re honest, do these things make us happy or do they just put a sticking plaster over our day-to-day dissatisfaction and anxiety?

Do we want to get to the end of our lives full of regret for the things we didn’t do? Success is no longer about doing the same as our neighbours, having more material possessions than our friends; it is about doing what is right for us at this time in our lives. It’s a never-ending cycle of frustration if we try to compete. We need to break free of the restraints that a materialistic lifestyle has shackled us with; release ourselves from the treadmill that we have placed ourselves upon.

What do you think? Is money the route to happiness? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Photo Credit: Cam M. via Compfight cc