The Treadmill

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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    I agree with you. If I had a house I owned free and clear, and a little money in the bank, I’d spend the rest of my life doing the things I love. Which are traveling, art, music and photography, education, social and political action, and documentary film making. It would take substantially less than $1 million to make that happen. I suspect that’s true for most people. But there’s something about living large that changes your appetites, and I think that’s also nearly universal. We’re always trying to climb over the next hill. I also think that my perspective would change, and I might work just as tirelessly as an artist/activist as I do now for money. Good food for thought, Ebonmuse. I hope I can continue to improve my work/life balance.

  • Polly

    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.

    Right! And I would be on my way to those places in a HEARTBEAT, if I had $2M in the bank.
    What drives these schmucks? I always try to see my lifestyle in the context of history. The technological advantages I enjoy daily would be the envy of royalty a couple hundred years ago.

  • Polly

    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.

    Right! And I would be on my way to those places in a HEARTBEAT, if I had $2M in the bank.
    What drives these schmucks? I always try to see my lifestyle in the context of history. The technological advantages I enjoy daily would be the envy of royalty a couple hundred years ago.

  • Andrew A

    All my life I’ve wanted a good paying job, but I’ve never seen the benefits of being a multi-millionaire. My family gets by enough to keep everyone as happy as should be expected with only $35k approx. spread across 5 people and 2 dogs.

    If I made that much I think I could meet all of my needs and have a decent amount of money left over for hobbies. I expect that my college degree I’m going for now will get me a job that pays at least $50k, and that is more than my plans require thus far.

    I see no problem aiming for an impossible goal where as you advance you are continuously rewarded, but if you never stop to experience those rewards, and only ever work towards a never-ending goal, you will get lost along the way.

  • Valhar2000

    I myself can’t see how I would spend more than a million dollars; I think I’d run out of ideas long before I got even half way there. Nonetheless, perhaps, once you get used to spending your money, you just can’t stop doing it.

    Since I’ve never had that kind of money, I can’t say.

  • Valhar2000

    I myself can’t see how I would spend more than a million dollars; I think I’d run out of ideas long before I got even half way there. Nonetheless, perhaps, once you get used to spending your money, you just can’t stop doing it.

    Since I’ve never had that kind of money, I can’t say.

  • http://www.anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I was thinking the same thing when I was reading that Times article the other day. These people are millionares. They should be happy with what they have and stop comparing themselves to their neighbors. Even the Bible gets it right in the 10 Commandments about not envying your neighbors goods.

  • http://www.gretachristina.com/ Greta Christina

    I have to confess, I actually have the treadmill thing. But not about money — about writing.

    I make a modest steady side income as a writer; I’ve had a couple of books published and have another coming out soon; I have a small amount of name recognition and a few fans. And I constantly have to remind myself that this is more than 95% of people who want to be writers ever get in their lives. I’m constantly comparing myself to other writers who are more successful than I am, or who get gigs that I want. And I’ll confess, I don’t always do it graciously: there’s often a sour-grapes note of “why did they get that, they’re not that great, they only got it ‘cuz they’re shameless self-promoters.”

    So while I’m baffled by people who don’t think an eight-figure income is enough, if I’m going to be honest with myself I can’t really criticize. It is corrosive, though. Tommykey, I was also thinking about how not only the Ten Commandments but the list of seven deadly sins both include envy.

    BTW, I do, in fact, completely understand not wanting to take your moolah and retire someplace cheap. We have a mortgage in San Francisco, among the most expensive real estate markets in the country. We have to work harder than we would if we lived elsewhere, and will not be able to retire as early. But we get to live in San Francisco. Totally worth it.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    My reaction is mixed. I’m not sure that continuing to compare yourself to those above you and to strive to achieve more is, itself, a self-destructive trait. It may well be a world-destructive trait if it leads those with enough money to help others to fail to do so because they want more and more money. But I have to wonder if part of the reason this happens is simply because these people need these sorts of stress and challenges in order to be fulfilled as people. However, in order to get anything out of your work, it has to be for an aim you care about. So if money is the most obvious goal around, unless you’re going to stop and re-evaluate and find a different goal that could stretch and energise you just as much, it makes sense to continue pursuing it.

    Obviously, stopping and re-evaluating and finding a new demanding goal would be the most sensible thing to do. I just have to stress that I don’t think retiring would necessarily make these people happy either!

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    My reaction is mixed. I’m not sure that continuing to compare yourself to those above you and to strive to achieve more is, itself, a self-destructive trait. It may well be a world-destructive trait if it leads those with enough money to help others to fail to do so because they want more and more money. But I have to wonder if part of the reason this happens is simply because these people need these sorts of stress and challenges in order to be fulfilled as people. However, in order to get anything out of your work, it has to be for an aim you care about. So if money is the most obvious goal around, unless you’re going to stop and re-evaluate and find a different goal that could stretch and energise you just as much, it makes sense to continue pursuing it.

    Obviously, stopping and re-evaluating and finding a new demanding goal would be the most sensible thing to do. I just have to stress that I don’t think retiring would necessarily make these people happy either!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I dunno, if’n I had a few million dollars, I’d pile it all in a room and roll around naked in it. That’d make me happy for a minute or two.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Dave:

    All of us have not only the right but the obligation to judge. To delegate that responsibility without authority is to ask for chaos. To delegate it with authority is to cede our right to think for ourselves. This is not to argue that we should not have legally constituted judges, but that we remain vigilant as ever against their abuses, just as we are against these self-appointed religious judges.

  • Alex Weaver

    Hmm. I’m inclined to agree; I’ve worked 100-120 hour weeks before, doing field testing and long-range driving, but I definitely prefer to avoid it when I can afford to. As it stands, I snicker at people who feel the need to buy fancy, expensive cars and huge houses [insert various "compensating" cracks here]. For my own part, I absolutely cannot see any reasonable way to use more than about $100,000 a year on my family’s needs (and much of that would be going towards retirement savings and my daughter’s college fund); anything extra I’d find some good charities to distribute to. Nevertheless, I can certainly identify with “comparing oneself with the people above you”, albeit not in terms of money; I’m a bit jealous of the people who’ve made so much progress faster than me on similar hobby projects. x.x

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    I’ll be completely honest – I’d love to be stinking rich!

    Not so much for the luxury of being able to buy absolutely anything I wanted. Although many people can’t, I can imagine how the novelty would wear off and the endless strive for more material goods would become unfulfilling. But there is one novelty that I don’t think would wear off for me, and that would be not having the stress of worrying about money. I work 55-60 hours per week between two jobs to make ends meet, and I have next to nothing left over (although that is partly because I’m not very organised with my finances).

    If I were rich, I’d make sure that all my friends and family were looked after, that I had everything I needed (and wanted) and enough money in the bank so that I would never have to work again. Then anything I had in excess I would donate to various charities, and I would continue to give the interest that took me into excess of my needs to various charities and other good causes.

    I can totally accept that material wealth is not the be all and end all to happiness, but I have to admit I find it hard to believe it doesn’t play more of a part than the studies you cite suggest. Provided that I had the things in my life that, as you say, money cannot buy, I think wealth would make me happier still. I think it’s a question of balance.

    I also dislike the way a lot of religious doctrine discourages material wealth as sinful.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    I’ll be completely honest – I’d love to be stinking rich!

    Not so much for the luxury of being able to buy absolutely anything I wanted. Although many people can’t, I can imagine how the novelty would wear off and the endless strive for more material goods would become unfulfilling. But there is one novelty that I don’t think would wear off for me, and that would be not having the stress of worrying about money. I work 55-60 hours per week between two jobs to make ends meet, and I have next to nothing left over (although that is partly because I’m not very organised with my finances).

    If I were rich, I’d make sure that all my friends and family were looked after, that I had everything I needed (and wanted) and enough money in the bank so that I would never have to work again. Then anything I had in excess I would donate to various charities, and I would continue to give the interest that took me into excess of my needs to various charities and other good causes.

    I can totally accept that material wealth is not the be all and end all to happiness, but I have to admit I find it hard to believe it doesn’t play more of a part than the studies you cite suggest. Provided that I had the things in my life that, as you say, money cannot buy, I think wealth would make me happier still. I think it’s a question of balance.

    I also dislike the way a lot of religious doctrine discourages material wealth as sinful.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “But there is one novelty that I don’t think would wear off for me, and that would be not having the stress of worrying about money.”

    I think the point of this post, though, is that being rich doesn’t absolve you from worrying about money. You can always want more; or fear that what you have will be lost; or worry about what to do with what you have (the question of charity becomes much bigger and more complicated when you can significantly support them, and making sure your friends and family are financially taken care of is a lot more emotionally complex than you might think); or stress about whether the people in your life resent you for your wealth; or stress about whether the people in your life are sucking up to you because you’re rich; etc.

    I had a close friend who was independently wealthy, and a lot of these issues were really hard for him. It interfered with a lot of his friendships and relationships, especially with the combo of resentment and sucking up. Plus worthy causes were always banging on his door (metaphorically), and although he was wealthy, he couldn’t possibly support every one that he wanted to.

    I also have the fantasy of striking it rich and never having to worry about money again. But it really doesn’t work that way.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    My apologies. I should have made this clearer in my post, because tobe38 is quite right – there is one special circumstance in which making more money will make you happier. Namely, if you don’t have enough money to provide for basic needs, or if that is a constant possibility, then yes, becoming wealthier will increase your happiness. Studies on this topic have borne that out. But once you’re financially secure, the addition of more money, no matter how much, has at best a minuscule effect on happiness.

    It’s an interesting question whether, if your friends and family were financially insecure, it would also increase your happiness if you made enough money to provide for them. I don’t know of any studies that have been done on that question, but I’d bet the answer, all other things being equal, is yes. I think it’s entirely compatible with humanism to believe that doing good for others makes you happier, and money – which is, after all, nothing but the quantifiable ability to carry out your wishes – can make you happy when used as a vehicle to that end. But money for its own sake, like power for its own sake, does not.

  • Alex Weaver

    I can certainly attest that being able to provide my daughter with a decent standard of living has a spectacular effect on my happiness.

  • Alex Weaver

    I can certainly attest that being able to provide my daughter with a decent standard of living has a spectacular effect on my happiness.

  • http://asmalldarklight.blogspot.com/ Matt Sunderland

    The problem might be inescapable
    if it’s not moral, but economic

    according to the “supply curve of labor”:
    as a worker’s wage increases,
    they are generally willing to work more hours

    because the higher wage increases the marginal utility of working and increases the opportunity cost of not working.

    Luckily, some people believe the supply curve of labor is “backward bending” (albeit at insanely high wages).

  • http://asmalldarklight.blogspot.com/ Matt Sunderland

    The problem might be inescapable
    if it’s not moral, but economic

    according to the “supply curve of labor”:
    as a worker’s wage increases,
    they are generally willing to work more hours

    because the higher wage increases the marginal utility of working and increases the opportunity cost of not working.

    Luckily, some people believe the supply curve of labor is “backward bending” (albeit at insanely high wages).

  • Alex Weaver

    Also, some people don’t choose to live their lives by slavishly following economic optimization formulas.

  • Alex Weaver

    Hmm. Perhaps a better way of putting it is to point out that the “opportunity cost” of working more and more hours rapidly becomes enormous when one considers (as most sane people do) the loss of time to pursue things things like leisure time, family interaction, meals, and sleep as “costs,” rather than arbitrarily restricting their analysis to factors readily quantified and usually preceded by a currency symbol.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Greta Christina

    I think the point of this post, though, is that being rich doesn’t absolve you from worrying about money. You can always want more; or fear that what you have will be lost; or worry about what to do with what you have (the question of charity becomes much bigger and more complicated when you can significantly support them, and making sure your friends and family are financially taken care of is a lot more emotionally complex than you might think); or stress about whether the people in your life resent you for your wealth; or stress about whether the people in your life are sucking up to you because you’re rich; etc.

    I do take your point, but I think this is at a different level from say, not knowing how you’re going to pay this month’s rent, or the embarrassment of having a credit card declined. Hell, I’ve had cash declined! ;)

    @ Ebonmuse

    But once you’re financially secure, the addition of more money, no matter how much, has at best a minuscule effect on happiness.

    I completely agree. The accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake is something I find ludicrous. Money, at the end of the day, is credit, and only worth what you buy with it (obviously it’s sensible to have the security of savings). A few seasons ago an Arsenal footballer left the club because he wanted £60,000 per week, and the club would only pay him £55,000 per week. I want to know what he wanted to buy and couldn’t afford, or what aspect of his lifestyle he couldn’t afford with £55,000 per week.

    I think having enough money to look after friends and family would make one happier. I always think it’s far more satisfying to spend money on someone else than on yourself. It’s a good way to remind yourself that you have something that, as you say, money can’t buy.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    I know quite a few lawyers who worked hard to achieve the good life when they get older. After working really hard for decades, it is now time to retire, but they don’t. They’ve neglected their intellect, except for the practice of law. They find meaning representing clients and making money. That is their source of community recognition. It is their source of power and they don’t want to cut themselves off from it, even though that was the plan and even though they now have the means.

    This issue became salient after I had worked for five years at my first job as a trial lawyer. During that time, three of the partners had died and none had retired. That was a wake-up call. Since then, I have (at considerable economic price) worked (or, attempted to work) four days per week instead of five or six, like most lawyers. It hasn’t been easy, stepping out of the mainstream. Also, it often feels like I’m burning my retirment while young. The alternative, though, of not really having a retirement while I would be alert and energetic, is unthinkable.

  • Alex Leckie

    Well maybe some of them are just ambitious?

  • Alex Weaver

    Well maybe some of them are just ambitious?

    Lesson 1: To the best of my knowledge, absolutely nothing substantive in human psychology is anywhere near that simple.

  • luvtaberich

    As someone who never learned, for whatever reasons, how to deal with money until later in life, I’m 43 and still really don’t have much of a clue and don’t have any extra to practice with, having a million dollars would make me very happy. Right now I am in the middle of a personal bankruptcy, living paycheck to paycheck, know that I will not be able to retire, and am watching my job become obsolete as more and more engineers do their own drafting. I accept all responsibilty for my plight. From my perspective having so much money that it would be a pain in the butt would be awesome. I have a modest older house on a street that backs up to a newer neighborhood in which I frequently take my evening walk. The difference is amazing. These people have multiple SUV’s, sailboats, powerboats, amazing lawns with built in fountains and ponds, I gave up landscaping because it was too extravagant. Now being the closet musician, author, artist, dreamer (which is what got me into trouble in the first place) that I am I don’t really desire what these people have. I enjoy sparseness and simplicity and find beauty in being frugal. I know that money would not buy me love or happiness. Ok a 24′ sailboat would be nice, but I certainly would not be adverse to the idea that my mortgage was taken care of for the rest of the year. The fact is we live in a capitalist society and people like me do not fair well in such an environment.

  • Judy

    Like luvtaberich, I appreciate and enjoy sparseness, simplicity and frugality. I’m scared of people who pursue material things obsessively, and I’ve never liked having a bunch of “stuff”, especially since, as I have no descendents, there’d be no one to will my “estate” to at my passing. So I try to have as little as possible so that in the event of my passing, my family members left won’t have to exhaust themselves trying to figure out what to with what I’ve left behind.

    However, I abhor the 9-5 routine; it has become pure drudgery after 20+ years. Not to mention, like a lot of others, I haven’t done so well in planning and saving for my eventual retirement. So, if I could get rich enough to retire right now (I’m 41), buy a decent house and vehicle, and have enough left to help others, pursue my creative side on “my” schedule and comfortably live out my remaining years, I’d happily take the money.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    There’s a shadow side to this whole discussion. And that is the ‘sour grapes’ issue. People who don’t have a lot of money and struggle with it often disparage those who are more successful simply as a way of feeling better about themselves.

    All things being equal, rich is better than poor by every measure. Health, happiness, and security. That some of the idle rich have existential angst only seems to reinforce in our minds the convenient attitude that “money doesn’t buy happiness.” As others have pointed out, it does–up to the point when your needs are taken care of.

    But that’s only on a personal level. The other benefit that wealth brings is control and importance. Many times this is based on giving one’s money away in a manner that brings the specific brand of satisfaction that only helping others can. Which also bestows on the benefactor a sense of being part of history and/or more important than others. We may deride this as a conceit of the philanthropist, but in fact people have been helped and the benefactor will be remembered for it.

    Just a few more thoughts. I personally respect the rich not just for their achievements, but also for being smart enough to hang onto their money. An old truism states that if all the money in the world were to be redistributed equally, it would soon be back in the hands from which it came. The proof of this concept came when Russia divested itself of state enterprises and the population sold back their vouchers to conglomerates as fast as they received them.

    Money finds its own level, like a force of nature. I’m going to state something that is not going to win me any friends: As much as we may hate the idea, money is a very firm indicator of a person’s value and success and fitness on an evolutionary level–whether or not they actually earned it. And that includes people who are predatory. Robber barons have always existed and always done very well for themselves. Which is why the checks and balances of the law are so important. Moral discussions about this are all fine and dandy and we can make our judgments and form our opinions until the cows come home. But still, money buys power, power brings money, and always will.

  • jack

    Great post, Ebonmuse. The discussion brings up some fascinating topics, too. I have a book to recommend on the subject:

    Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

    It has been an important guide (financial, ethical and inspirational) for me and my wife for the last 10 years or so. We are mid-fifties now, not quite at financial independence, but close. For those of you living paycheck-to-paycheck and wishing for freedom from the treadmill, this book should help! Dominguez was a bond trader before he got off the treadmill himself, and the part of the book on investing is heavily influenced by his job history. It is not quite as applicable in this age of pathetic interest rates on government bonds. The important part of the book, however, on the meaning of work and money, and on simple living and frugality, is timeless.

    And in reply to this from Greta Christina:

    making sure your friends and family are financially taken care of is a lot more emotionally complex than you might think)

    I could not agree more. Supporting your spouse and dependent children is fine and wonderful. Supporting adult children, siblings, cousins and friends is altogether different. You run significant risks of doing far more harm than good. You can ruin someone’s drive, ambition and sense of self-worth by making them dependent on you to support a lifestyle that their own income could never support. For some fascinating revelations along these lines, here’s another recommendation:

    The Millionaire Next Door, by T. Stanley and W. Danko

    For some mysterious reason I couldn’t get the link to work for this one. Sorry!

  • Petrucio

    According to Fortune, Gates is no longer the richest man as of August 2007 – Carlos Slim is.

  • luvtaberich

    It’s easy to sit back and make a sweeping armchair psychologist statement that anyone who complains about being poor just disparages the rich and does so to make themselves feel better. So I’ll make one. I suspect that someone makes such a statement is speaking from personal experience since they can’t know everyone that is posting. I don’t disparage anyone for being wealthy. I may not like the system. In no way am I suggesting that money be taken from the rich and given to me.

    Quite frankly all I really want is to be solvent and be able to retire. That is my goal is to be debt free. From what I understand most of my neighbors that seem well off are actually doing it with credit anyway. Despite my not so well thought out handle, I don’t want that. I’ll take the most humble home and vehicles as long as I am not beholden to the man. Not there yet. I’m with Judy. I abhor being stuck in the corporation. It’s not that I am bitter it is that I don’t fit the mold. Also I’ve been laid off before and it looks like it is about to happen again. It does not make sense to me to sell my time doing a mind numbing task so that I can barely make it. I am sure that it makes sense to the 5 millionaires at the top of the company who are benefitting from my enslavement but also whom I do not disparage and don’t even know. What put’s it in perspective for me is that compared to others in the world I have it made. I’m living the high life. So I think about that and get over it for awhile. Still I have my goals.

    I read somewhere that to really be rich one much pull in 6 figures without working but just on the assets one already has. There is only a small number of people in the USA that are truly rich. The only way to get there is to be born into it, marry in to it, or get lucky with business.

    Thanks for the book suggestion Jack.

  • lpetrich

    BlackSun has claimed: “An old truism states that if all the money in the world were to be redistributed equally, it would soon be back in the hands from which it came.”

    I’ve seen that elsewhere; it presumes that we have created a meritocratic utopia, which we have not. People with mediocre talent for earning money who had inherited their wealth won’t make it back, for starters, and even those who have earned a lot of money by their own efforts may not be able to do so after such a great redistribution. It’s unlikely that the Paris Hiltons of the world would earn their inherited wealth back. And a lot of business success depends on factors like luck and being in the right place at the right time — circumstances that are difficult to duplicate. So somsone who had built a big corporate empire might end up running a small business or being a middle manager somewhere.

    Another way of putting it is: if one was to rerun history with different initial conditions, would the amount of wealth that each person ends up with remain exactly the same?

    My own belief is that while some people will undoubtedly end up very rich and some people very poor, who ends up in which state will vary significantly from timeline to timeline, contrary to what was implied.

  • lpetrich

    BlackSun has claimed: “An old truism states that if all the money in the world were to be redistributed equally, it would soon be back in the hands from which it came.”

    I’ve seen that elsewhere; it presumes that we have created a meritocratic utopia, which we have not. People with mediocre talent for earning money who had inherited their wealth won’t make it back, for starters, and even those who have earned a lot of money by their own efforts may not be able to do so after such a great redistribution. It’s unlikely that the Paris Hiltons of the world would earn their inherited wealth back. And a lot of business success depends on factors like luck and being in the right place at the right time — circumstances that are difficult to duplicate. So somsone who had built a big corporate empire might end up running a small business or being a middle manager somewhere.

    Another way of putting it is: if one was to rerun history with different initial conditions, would the amount of wealth that each person ends up with remain exactly the same?

    My own belief is that while some people will undoubtedly end up very rich and some people very poor, who ends up in which state will vary significantly from timeline to timeline, contrary to what was implied.

  • bbk

    Money does buy happiness for the majority of the people on this earth. When you don’t have basic needs, when your children die from common diseases and you’re going hungry, money is a prerequisite for happiness. Once you get past that level, money is still a prerequisite for obtaining a quality higher education, which can lead to even greater contentedness. Beyond that, more money buys higher levels of transportation, which gives people more options of where to live and where to work. In fact, most Americans would be much happier if they had more money. So what’s the point of saying “money can’t buy happiness” when, in fact, that’s the exception to the rule and the opposite of what is really true for most of us? Why do Americans, in all their despair, look to the plight of the rich to feel better about themselves being poor? What kind of convoluted thing is that? I say give me more money – if you don’t want it, I’ll take it!

    Here’s the rub. Even if those rich are not satisfied and strive for more money and more success in their lives, guess what, they’re still happier than you are. They’ll still live longer lives than you will. They’ll probably marry someone more beautiful, smarter, and more successful than who you met in the best dream you ever had. So who cares if they still feel the need to work hard? Are we talking about engineers, researchers, Silicon Valley? These people who work hard, they play a direct role in creating jobs for millions of other Americans. Before you denigrate them for working too hard, realize that many other Americans owe much of the happiness that they do have to these people. Realize that the work they do may just be more valuable, more rewarding, and a whole lot safer than working 60 hour weeks in a coal mine somewhere.

  • bbk

    Money does buy happiness for the majority of the people on this earth. When you don’t have basic needs, when your children die from common diseases and you’re going hungry, money is a prerequisite for happiness. Once you get past that level, money is still a prerequisite for obtaining a quality higher education, which can lead to even greater contentedness. Beyond that, more money buys higher levels of transportation, which gives people more options of where to live and where to work. In fact, most Americans would be much happier if they had more money. So what’s the point of saying “money can’t buy happiness” when, in fact, that’s the exception to the rule and the opposite of what is really true for most of us? Why do Americans, in all their despair, look to the plight of the rich to feel better about themselves being poor? What kind of convoluted thing is that? I say give me more money – if you don’t want it, I’ll take it!

    Here’s the rub. Even if those rich are not satisfied and strive for more money and more success in their lives, guess what, they’re still happier than you are. They’ll still live longer lives than you will. They’ll probably marry someone more beautiful, smarter, and more successful than who you met in the best dream you ever had. So who cares if they still feel the need to work hard? Are we talking about engineers, researchers, Silicon Valley? These people who work hard, they play a direct role in creating jobs for millions of other Americans. Before you denigrate them for working too hard, realize that many other Americans owe much of the happiness that they do have to these people. Realize that the work they do may just be more valuable, more rewarding, and a whole lot safer than working 60 hour weeks in a coal mine somewhere.

  • bbk

    You know… for a minute while reading these comments I forgot that this was an atheist board.

    Who perpetuates the lie that money can’t buy happiness more-so than religion? Who else more-so than the world’s major religions bought into the anti-secular Platonic philosophies? Who else has the greatest conflict of interest in telling you how much money they think you really need to be happy? Who else tells you that you will be happiest if you just give it to them, as much as you have, give until it hurts and you have nothing left? And most Americans let these organizations teach them how to be happy?

    Money… if it buys education, then there’s a chance it will lead to wisdom, and wisdom will lead to atheism. And atheism is a very hard-won kind of happiness that religious people will just never know. And if money can buy more atheism, then that’s less money going to church coffers, where it would be used to spread more hate and discontent. And maybe that means that happiness will start to spread all around. Every dollar that an atheist doesn’t put on a collection plate is a dollar that will be used for things that actually have a chance to bring about happiness for everyone.

    It’s interesting to compare a couple things side by side. Atheism, the rich, income disparity, and happiness.

    The interesting thing to me is that atheism is very similarly positioned in that top 1% of society when it comes to the realm of culture and education. Even though it offers so much hope for finding happiness, true contentedness, measurable goals and real rewards… it’s still damn hard for an atheist to be truly happy. It’s hard, but only because the rest of society just isn’t there yet. It takes a great deal of courage and integrity to be an atheist in a society that openly discriminates against them, casts them down as worthless and unaccomplished in their lives.

    So, at least for allegorical purposes, there are plenty of similarities between atheists and the very wealthy. Atheists are denigrated for being arrogant know-it-alls, their lives made fun of as being without purpose or reward… Likewise, the rich are denigrated for supposedly looking towards the richer still, for being unable to find happiness with their all money and for supposedly working themselves to death out of simple greed.

    But instead of being arrogant or greedy, maybe the problem is that the rest of society hasn’t caught up… Maybe the reason some rich dork in Silicon Valley needs to compete against his richer neighbor is because there’s only 1 eligible woman for either one of them to go on a date with, because no one else can afford to live there and the ones who do wouldn’t date a dork just because he’s rich. And maybe an atheist in any community has the same problem. And to the outsiders it may look like greed or arrogance, but the truth is very different. Money would make the rich happy if more poor people had it… and godlessness would make atheists happy if more theists gave up their ridiculous beliefs.

    And who else benefits more than religion from both of the stereotypes? Give us all your money and put your blinders on, they say. We’ll tell you what to do. God will provide everything you need after you give every last penny to our organization. My gut feeling is that’s where all of this garbage comes from.

  • bbk

    You know… for a minute while reading these comments I forgot that this was an atheist board.

    Who perpetuates the lie that money can’t buy happiness more-so than religion? Who else more-so than the world’s major religions bought into the anti-secular Platonic philosophies? Who else has the greatest conflict of interest in telling you how much money they think you really need to be happy? Who else tells you that you will be happiest if you just give it to them, as much as you have, give until it hurts and you have nothing left? And most Americans let these organizations teach them how to be happy?

    Money… if it buys education, then there’s a chance it will lead to wisdom, and wisdom will lead to atheism. And atheism is a very hard-won kind of happiness that religious people will just never know. And if money can buy more atheism, then that’s less money going to church coffers, where it would be used to spread more hate and discontent. And maybe that means that happiness will start to spread all around. Every dollar that an atheist doesn’t put on a collection plate is a dollar that will be used for things that actually have a chance to bring about happiness for everyone.

    It’s interesting to compare a couple things side by side. Atheism, the rich, income disparity, and happiness.

    The interesting thing to me is that atheism is very similarly positioned in that top 1% of society when it comes to the realm of culture and education. Even though it offers so much hope for finding happiness, true contentedness, measurable goals and real rewards… it’s still damn hard for an atheist to be truly happy. It’s hard, but only because the rest of society just isn’t there yet. It takes a great deal of courage and integrity to be an atheist in a society that openly discriminates against them, casts them down as worthless and unaccomplished in their lives.

    So, at least for allegorical purposes, there are plenty of similarities between atheists and the very wealthy. Atheists are denigrated for being arrogant know-it-alls, their lives made fun of as being without purpose or reward… Likewise, the rich are denigrated for supposedly looking towards the richer still, for being unable to find happiness with their all money and for supposedly working themselves to death out of simple greed.

    But instead of being arrogant or greedy, maybe the problem is that the rest of society hasn’t caught up… Maybe the reason some rich dork in Silicon Valley needs to compete against his richer neighbor is because there’s only 1 eligible woman for either one of them to go on a date with, because no one else can afford to live there and the ones who do wouldn’t date a dork just because he’s rich. And maybe an atheist in any community has the same problem. And to the outsiders it may look like greed or arrogance, but the truth is very different. Money would make the rich happy if more poor people had it… and godlessness would make atheists happy if more theists gave up their ridiculous beliefs.

    And who else benefits more than religion from both of the stereotypes? Give us all your money and put your blinders on, they say. We’ll tell you what to do. God will provide everything you need after you give every last penny to our organization. My gut feeling is that’s where all of this garbage comes from.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Beyond that, more money buys higher levels of transportation, which gives people more options of where to live and where to work. In fact, most Americans would be much happier if they had more money.

    As obvious as that seems, it is not supported by the facts. People may think they would be happier if they had more money, but surveys done on this question have consistently found that people’s own self-reported levels of happiness have near zero correlation to their net worth or income. Once you have enough to provide for basic needs, people with more money are not significantly happier than people with less. I cited an article to this effect in the original post; here it is again.

  • Alex Weaver

    bbk…frankly, I’m not entirely sure where to start. I’ll settle, for the moment, for pointing out that A) your claims that those who are ultra-rich are happier than those who merely have material and reasonable financial security are unsubstantiated and apparently in conflict with actual observations, B) the fact that you apparently see an appallingly shallow and dysfunctional view of and approach to life in general and personal relationships in particular as unobjectionable disturbs me greatly, and C) your claims about having money enough to ensure needs are met improving happiness have been preemptively echoed by the blog author and pretty much everyone here.

  • Alex Weaver

    bbk…frankly, I’m not entirely sure where to start. I’ll settle, for the moment, for pointing out that A) your claims that those who are ultra-rich are happier than those who merely have material and reasonable financial security are unsubstantiated and apparently in conflict with actual observations, B) the fact that you apparently see an appallingly shallow and dysfunctional view of and approach to life in general and personal relationships in particular as unobjectionable disturbs me greatly, and C) your claims about having money enough to ensure needs are met improving happiness have been preemptively echoed by the blog author and pretty much everyone here.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Who perpetuates the lie that money can’t buy happiness more-so than religion? Who else more-so than the world’s major religions bought into the anti-secular Platonic philosophies? Who else has the greatest conflict of interest in telling you how much money they think you really need to be happy? Who else tells you that you will be happiest if you just give it to them, as much as you have, give until it hurts and you have nothing left? And most Americans let these organizations teach them how to be happy?

    I feel as though I should clarify my position here. Make no mistake, I deny the religious position that people should suffer and deny themselves in this life to be rewarded in the hereafter. I believe that people should take advantage of the good things this life offers, and that everyone deserves comfort, prosperity and security. Our chance to be happy is now, and to the extent that supplying material needs can contribute to that happiness, then we should make an effort to provide those needs.

    Where I dissent is at the notion that, all else being equal, more material wealth is always better. As I said, and as studies have repeatedly shown, this is not true. Many well-off people believe that greater wealth would bring them still more happiness, but this belief is false. What it overlooks is that, while being wealthy gives you more options, it also brings a whole new raft of problems and dilemmas which less wealthy people do not face.

    Chief among these is that important interpersonal relationships like friendship and love are far more difficult to sustain in the presence of money. And in the end, it’s not things that bring us happiness; it’s our relationships with our fellow human beings. Money cannot buy that. You think you’d be happy marrying that beautiful trophy spouse you mentioned, bbk, if you thought that their desire to be with you was premised only on your salary figures and not on who you are as a person?

  • bbk

    Ebonmuse,

    I won’t claim that I’m the best at defending my position on something as nuanced as this subject, and I’ll admit that my position is something that many people would be uncomfortable with – perhaps calling it shallow, whether it is or isn’t. So I’ll admit I had it coming to be called shallow and offensive. But the crux of it is that the basic merits of studies measuring happiness can be questioned.

    There’s been thousands of scientific studies done on happiness and no one in their right mind would even try to compare the findings. The closest anyone has come to creating a non-subjective study of happiness that even had a shot at being comparable among 2 individuals? This is it: On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you with your life? That’s it. That’s the best way we have of measuring happiness. Then we try to correlate it to some readily available metrics such as income and see if there’s a correlation. And even if there is some correlation, there certainly isn’t any grounds for causation in either direction.

    All else being equal – well, there is absolutely nothing equal about illiterate tribesmen living in the African grasslands/jungles and a Silicon Valley engineer. Self reported levels of happiness are virtually impossible to compare even among individuals sitting in the same room, let alone among different social groups. So you can’t claim that all else being equal, money doesn’t matter. You do not know this any better than I do, therefore my opinion is just as valid as yours.

    According to what I’ve heard about the collective studies, money isn’t the only thing that seems to have no relevance. If you throw in socioeconomic status, marital status, religious involvement, family income – altogether they seem to account for maybe 3% of the measured variation in self reported happiness. And as for the other 97% of the measurement – maybe you can toss that off to brain chemistry. So call it shallow if you will – but things like love and respect haven’t been shown to matter any more than money or anything else.

    Shallow or not, at least money actually has been shown to be the overriding factor of happiness on at least some levels of income – and nothing else has. If there’s anything that has any basis for being the first place we look to figure out how to improve someone’s happiness, money is as good as we got. Your own link for Forbes says that there is some correlation with happiness and more money later in life – the implication being that happiness makes you rich (which goes to show that the article had a bias). But it may be that the security that money provides – such as a good job in one’s youth – can make one happy even before all of that money is saved up – but the happiness comes from knowing that the money WILL be there. Just another possibility that everyone is too quick to dismiss as shallow and untrue.

    Moreover, I was not the one who pointed to a largely inconclusive group of studies and then switched over to anecdotal quotations to claim that rich people are unhappy because they’re comparing themselves to richer people. No study on happiness has ever found that to be the case in an objective way. That’s just an opinion and to me it has no more value than the opinion that atheists aren’t happy because they’re arrogant. There are plenty of other ways to explain these things that actually make some sense instead of denigrating the lifestyle of a group of people.

  • bbk

    Ebonmuse,

    I won’t claim that I’m the best at defending my position on something as nuanced as this subject, and I’ll admit that my position is something that many people would be uncomfortable with – perhaps calling it shallow, whether it is or isn’t. So I’ll admit I had it coming to be called shallow and offensive. But the crux of it is that the basic merits of studies measuring happiness can be questioned.

    There’s been thousands of scientific studies done on happiness and no one in their right mind would even try to compare the findings. The closest anyone has come to creating a non-subjective study of happiness that even had a shot at being comparable among 2 individuals? This is it: On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you with your life? That’s it. That’s the best way we have of measuring happiness. Then we try to correlate it to some readily available metrics such as income and see if there’s a correlation. And even if there is some correlation, there certainly isn’t any grounds for causation in either direction.

    All else being equal – well, there is absolutely nothing equal about illiterate tribesmen living in the African grasslands/jungles and a Silicon Valley engineer. Self reported levels of happiness are virtually impossible to compare even among individuals sitting in the same room, let alone among different social groups. So you can’t claim that all else being equal, money doesn’t matter. You do not know this any better than I do, therefore my opinion is just as valid as yours.

    According to what I’ve heard about the collective studies, money isn’t the only thing that seems to have no relevance. If you throw in socioeconomic status, marital status, religious involvement, family income – altogether they seem to account for maybe 3% of the measured variation in self reported happiness. And as for the other 97% of the measurement – maybe you can toss that off to brain chemistry. So call it shallow if you will – but things like love and respect haven’t been shown to matter any more than money or anything else.

    Shallow or not, at least money actually has been shown to be the overriding factor of happiness on at least some levels of income – and nothing else has. If there’s anything that has any basis for being the first place we look to figure out how to improve someone’s happiness, money is as good as we got. Your own link for Forbes says that there is some correlation with happiness and more money later in life – the implication being that happiness makes you rich (which goes to show that the article had a bias). But it may be that the security that money provides – such as a good job in one’s youth – can make one happy even before all of that money is saved up – but the happiness comes from knowing that the money WILL be there. Just another possibility that everyone is too quick to dismiss as shallow and untrue.

    Moreover, I was not the one who pointed to a largely inconclusive group of studies and then switched over to anecdotal quotations to claim that rich people are unhappy because they’re comparing themselves to richer people. No study on happiness has ever found that to be the case in an objective way. That’s just an opinion and to me it has no more value than the opinion that atheists aren’t happy because they’re arrogant. There are plenty of other ways to explain these things that actually make some sense instead of denigrating the lifestyle of a group of people.

  • Mrnaglfar

    The question becomes more easily solved when we stop thinking about it terms of “money” and start thinking it about it instead with a replacement; “Social Status”. More money doesn’t just mean more physical credit, it means you have status. Not only can you support yourself, but you can support others in return for favors or a good name. You could use your money to get back at people who you feel have wronged you and build a reputation of spite. Money (read social status) can also transfer from generation to generation; who the richest is today will not be who the richest is tomorrow, in a manner of speaking. More status (or money) could ensure future generations of the immediate and extended family and friends. But, like social status, it’s constantly changing. Evolution did not shape people to be content with things and here’s why; even small gains which seem almost insignificant at the time, over many generations, can add up to be huge gains – it’s the basic idea behind evolution regarding differential reproduction. If gaining money (social status)increased the probability of reproduction (which it did at the time when most of our evolution was taking place), then that trait would be selected for. Those who become content easily were taken over by the more successful strategy of always strivings for more.

    I can go into more detail if anyone wants

  • MJJP

    What drives these schmucks?
    Comment by: Polly
    ===================
    Competition and purpose. For whatever reason man has this trait and it needs to be recognized. We can see in society that those people who have no purpose whether it is because they are on the welfare system or have won mega bucks and no longer need to work, time and time again we see people who have ended up in prison or worse. There really has to be a need to wake up in the morning. I know after two or three days off I get bored and anxious to get back to work. As for those mega wealthy that feel that they have to work 60 to 70 hours a week to maintain their lifestyle they are probably correct. If they slack off there is someone in the wings waiting to take their place and their security if they are not able to keep up the taxes and expenses needed to stay at the top.Its all a matter of perception.To the body it makes no difference whether its the welfare mom waiting for late check or the CEO waiting for a deal confirmation the anxiety and stress are the same.

  • MJJP

    What drives these schmucks?
    Comment by: Polly
    ===================
    Competition and purpose. For whatever reason man has this trait and it needs to be recognized. We can see in society that those people who have no purpose whether it is because they are on the welfare system or have won mega bucks and no longer need to work, time and time again we see people who have ended up in prison or worse. There really has to be a need to wake up in the morning. I know after two or three days off I get bored and anxious to get back to work. As for those mega wealthy that feel that they have to work 60 to 70 hours a week to maintain their lifestyle they are probably correct. If they slack off there is someone in the wings waiting to take their place and their security if they are not able to keep up the taxes and expenses needed to stay at the top.Its all a matter of perception.To the body it makes no difference whether its the welfare mom waiting for late check or the CEO waiting for a deal confirmation the anxiety and stress are the same.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    It’s easy to sit back and make a sweeping armchair psychologist statement that anyone who complains about being poor just disparages the rich and does so to make themselves feel better. I suspect that someone makes such a statement is speaking from personal experience since they can’t know everyone that is posting.

    luvtaberich: Huh? I thought I made myself clear, but apparently not. I’m not rich, and I don’t disparage the rich. I’d like to be rich someday, and from your choice of handle, I’d assume you agree. So what’s your point?

    I’d posit that someone who is poor and disparages the rich guarantees that they have absolutely no chance of ever becoming rich. By despising the status and behaviors of the wealthy, the poor or the struggling just lock themselves even more irrevocably into their plight.

    In this sense (not the new-age “Secret” kind of sense) peoples modes of thinking can effect their lives, because they either enable or prevent them from taking effective action.

  • MJJP

    I’d posit that someone who is poor and disparages the rich guarantees that they have absolutely no chance of ever becoming rich. By despising the status and behaviors of the wealthy, the poor or the struggling just lock themselves even more irrevocably into their plight.

    In this sense (not the new-age “Secret” kind of sense) peoples modes of thinking can effect their lives, because they either enable or prevent them from taking effective action.

    Comment by: BlackSun
    ====================
    It sounds a lot like “Reverend Ike” talking but the point is true never the less. You cannot and will not have money if you despise those that do.

  • MJJP

    I’d posit that someone who is poor and disparages the rich guarantees that they have absolutely no chance of ever becoming rich. By despising the status and behaviors of the wealthy, the poor or the struggling just lock themselves even more irrevocably into their plight.

    In this sense (not the new-age “Secret” kind of sense) peoples modes of thinking can effect their lives, because they either enable or prevent them from taking effective action.

    Comment by: BlackSun
    ====================
    It sounds a lot like “Reverend Ike” talking but the point is true never the less. You cannot and will not have money if you despise those that do.

  • Petrucio

    @luvtaberich:

    It’s not all that hard to make those 6 figures like it seems. If you set aside an amount of about $500 for about 3 decades, you will end up with something close to $1.000.000 (duo to compound interests), which in turn will usually generate 6 figures a year.

    I’ve made a program to calculate all that for me and I’m planning on retiring with that (BTW, with my income, I’m considered below poverty line for US standards). So it’s not so much about what yor earn, but what you do with it.

    The numbers will surelly be different for the US economy tho, so study a little about investments, and do the math yourself. Good luck getting rich!

    — PS:
    Googles I’m feeling lucky on “Compound Interest” took me to an interesting calculator:
    http://www.moneychimp.com/calculator/compound_interest_calculator.htm
    The numbers I’ve put on my comment were just guesses, put putting it there with a 10% interest rate was just perfect dead on! Not sure how easy it is to achieve a 10% interest rate on the US tho.

    See how easy it is to get rich? It just takes a little patience (like 30 years). Now go ahead and start getting rich!

  • Petrucio

    @luvtaberich:

    It’s not all that hard to make those 6 figures like it seems. If you set aside an amount of about $500 for about 3 decades, you will end up with something close to $1.000.000 (duo to compound interests), which in turn will usually generate 6 figures a year.

    I’ve made a program to calculate all that for me and I’m planning on retiring with that (BTW, with my income, I’m considered below poverty line for US standards). So it’s not so much about what yor earn, but what you do with it.

    The numbers will surelly be different for the US economy tho, so study a little about investments, and do the math yourself. Good luck getting rich!

    — PS:
    Googles I’m feeling lucky on “Compound Interest” took me to an interesting calculator:
    http://www.moneychimp.com/calculator/compound_interest_calculator.htm
    The numbers I’ve put on my comment were just guesses, put putting it there with a 10% interest rate was just perfect dead on! Not sure how easy it is to achieve a 10% interest rate on the US tho.

    See how easy it is to get rich? It just takes a little patience (like 30 years). Now go ahead and start getting rich!

  • luvtaberich

    BlackSun,
    I felt as if you were saying that everyone who complains about being poor was only disparaging, “sour grapes”, the rich to make themselves feel better. I took offense to that. And that there was some kind of dark shadow over the whole thread. I did not see it and felt that you were generalizing way too much. As far as my handle I am an ironic fellow…..I’d settle for solvent and comfortable. Whether I’d want millions more than I actually need I have not really decided but there’s not much of a chance at that anyway so it’s moot. I would probably give it away to my brothers and family.

    Petrucio, thanks for the numbers. I am aware of the math and am working at it. Thankfully I am on the upward slope of the hole I was in.