Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article series about millionaires who don’t feel rich, mostly engineers and executives living in America’s Silicon Valley. Though most of the people profiled in the article have luxurious, paid-off homes, multiple cars and several million dollars already in the bank, they continue to work grueling, stressful 60- to 80-hour weeks, largely because they feel insecure when they compare themselves to their even wealthier neighbors. (This article was insightfully analyzed by my friend Erich Vieth over at Dangerous Intersection.)
Being as wealthy as these working-class millionaires is a nigh-unattainable dream for even the vast majority of Americans, much less the hundreds of millions of others on this planet who will likely spend their lives in poverty and squalor. $2 or $3 million in savings might not be enough to retire on in ultra-expensive Silicon Valley, but there are plenty of other nice places where that much money would, if invested wisely, be enough for a person to sustain a very comfortable lifestyle without ever having to work another day.
Why, then, do these people continue to live a nose-to-the-grindstone existence? For many, the answer is that they insist in comparing their wealth to that of their even wealthier neighbors. Rather than judging their wealth in absolute terms, which would quite sensibly tell them that they have more than enough for every reasonable need – or even comparing themselves to the 99.5% of Americans who are less wealthy than they are – they look at those who have even more and feel inadequate by comparison.
“Everyone around here looks at the people above them,” said Gary Kremen, the 43-year-old founder of Match.com, a popular online dating service. “It’s just like Wall Street, where there are all these financial guys worth $7 million wondering what’s so special about them when there are all these guys worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Defining your life in these terms is like running on a treadmill: no matter how much effort you put into it, you’ll always be in the same place. Unless you’re the single richest individual on the planet (Bill Gates now, but probably not for much longer), there will always be someone who has more money than you do. This is a game that cannot be won. Much better is to ask yourself: “Do I have enough for everything I want?” – and if the answer is no, it may be better worth the effort to seek to adjust your desires, rather than your income.
This ties in with a larger point about our society: too often, we have labor without rest, wealth without contentment. Too many people work in pursuit of an impossible goal of extravagant prosperity, thinking to find happiness in material goods and luxury, rather than learning to appreciate the pleasures that cannot be purchased and that are the only true path to contentment. As I said in the post “Drink Deeply“, money cannot buy happiness. Studies have repeatedly found that the correlation between the two is virtually nonexistent. Once people have enough to provide for their basic needs, additional money brings almost no additional happiness, and as in this case, the pursuit may actually diminish us.
That said, I don’t think that work is an intrinsic evil that should always be avoided. A life where there is nothing to strive for, and no possibility of meaningful achievement, would inevitably become an agony of tedium (which is one reason I doubt traditional conceptions of Heaven). The mind, like the muscles, needs exercise to stay active, and participation in challenging, fulfilling work is one of the best ways to accomplish that. But there should be a balance between work and the rest of life, and a clearer recognition of exactly why we work and what we can hope to get out of doing so.