Chasing Money or Choosing Peace

by | Feb. 01, 2008


Frank and Judy Williams saw their son Kyle grow into a solid, well-educated young man. He had great friends growing up, served a good mission, and attended BYU where he got his biology degree in preparation for medical school. "We were thrilled to see him fall in love with a wonderful girl. Our blessings and our happiness increased when she came into our family and loved our son as much as we did," they recall. He was just a broke college student, yet "his eyes never looked happier," Judy remembers. Then, almost without warning, Kyle called one night to tell them he had decided to quit his medical school to follow a friend's business proposition. Frank and Judy were stunned. "Our first shock was to hear him say he found something that would make a lot of money really fast," recalls Frank. Kyle and his friend planned to buy houses using someone else's credit and then pull equity from the homes to make yet bigger investments. They had a line of willing young people, and even seasoned adults, with just the credit scores they needed. In a long and complicated plan that felt more like a scheme, the two boys were happy to discover they would get rich fast by leveraging everything for something. There was a time when protecting your good name and credit was supposed to be for your own good, not for the good of others. Today, some people have found their good credit is worth a lot of money to someone else who needs good credit. History proves that a desperate attempt to get money is nothing new, but the schemes are getting craftier, and just a little greed is all it takes. Psychologists have spent decades studying the relationship between wealth and happiness. Today's young people play a very interesting role in the results of some of the most recent studies. According to one study comparing grown children's lifestyles to that of their parents when they were starting out, young people today live in bigger homes, drive not only nicer cars but more of them, and eat out almost as much as they eat in. But, mathematically speaking, they are not any richer than their parents were at the same age. It seems some people confuse being rich with the ability to buy more things. But actually, many people who appear to be rich are really just borrowing more and thus spending more. And at the end of the month they are not any richer than when they started. The risky behavior and traps that people fall into in order to get more money are becoming more understood as researchers have spent an enormous amount of time trying to pin down what they call "subjective well-being." It is this desire for well-being that can drive us into eventual misery. They have discovered that there is some connection between money and happiness, but that the connection is quite different than people have often thought. Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, in his best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness, states that the bottom line on money and happiness is "wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter." "We have always accepted the fact we are not rich, and neither are our friends," say Frank and Judy, "and that has always been okay with us because we are happy and we have peace." Their son Kyle began driving expensive cars, wearing fancy clothes, and recounting stories of fast, easy money that seemed too good to be true. Soon he was inviting his parents over to his new million-dollar house with, as his mother observed, "more rooms than a hotel." But there was a peace of mind and a happiness that they didn't seem to have anymore. They had traded things like family home evening and spaghetti dinners together for fast money, excessive work hours, and a lifestyle of trying to keep up with those notorious Joneses. Although countries like the United States and Japan have seen explosive economic growth over the past several decades, there has been no reported increase in overall happiness. Recent surveys of so called "rich people" such as lottery winners and members of the Forbes 100 list found that they are not much happier than most other people. If the drive for more money doesn't garner more happiness and our parents were just as happy with less, than what is the definition of healthy financial well being? According to psychologists the answer could be right in your own heart. Here are some simple yet startling observations. *Coveting Your Neighbor's Possessions Leads Straight to Misery* According to a study conducted by Andrew Oswald of England's Warwick University and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College, people who have plenty of money for their needs and live very comfortably with what they have suddenly get dissatisfied when they make relative income comparisons to others around them and their income compares unfavorably. According to the study, the less you care about what your neighbor makes, or the less you covet what he has, the happier you'll be. The skill that some poor and even some rich people have that helps them be happier is that they don't look around and compare. Misery comes when we want what others have and we are no longer satisfied with what was once perfectly acceptable. According to studies conducted at Knox College and the University of Rochester, there are some poor people that have more of a problem with money than the rich people they envy. They have showed that focusing too much on money leads to a much greater risk of depression. Those same people have more anxiety and a lower self-esteem. They even tend to experience more physical, behavioral, and relationship problems. The study made sure to explain that the problems did not come from being rich; in fact, many of the participants were even categorized as being poor or less affluent. But when money was a primary focus in life they suffered more than others who were just trying being satisfied with what they had. So the commandment to not covet is still in full force: Never measure your financial status against anything except your own reasonable personal goals. *"Count Your Many Blessings" is Perfect for the Bank Account* Professor Sonia Lyubomirsky of University of California Riverside attempted to show that the old adage "count your blessings" is good advice for money woes. She had several groups of people write down the five things they were most thankful for. "It's hard to feel envious or greedy or bitter when you're grateful," Lyubomirsky explains. "Gratitude seems to be incompatible with other negative emotions." One of the groups recorded their blessings on a weekly basis; the other did it three times a week, while a control group didn't count them at all. The only group to really experience a significant rise in gratitude and an increase in satisfaction for their status in life was the group that counted their blessings once a week. Pausing regularly but not so often it becomes insincere has a direct effect on our personal satisfaction. Another impact gratitude has on our financial well being could be in the way we see our purchases. As author David Myers, professor at Michigan's Hope College found, we think and talk like happy people when we empower ourselves with gratitude. Instead of standing in a store as a self-pitying victim saying, "I can't afford this," we take a more empowered approach as a person making wise choices based on our good values and priorities. We then say, "I am going to spend my money on better things," and we become more grateful for the money we have. *Choosing "Enough"* There is a lot of research on spending habits and marketing motivators when it comes to people and their money. Major companies place products in well thought out places, they use proven colors, and even package things in alluring styles just to get you to respond. That's why a simple software CD comes in a much larger box then is necessary. It gives consumers the sense they are getting more for their money. However, in all their research in trying to find ways to get a little more of your money there are some very telling results from their work that help us understand our "Natural Man." Some studies in three major toy stores show that children who go to the toy store to buy the specific toy they saw on TV and desired seemed to be more satisfied and happy with their choice than the child who was given free rein in a store to pick one toy. The lucky kid with the parent who loves them enough to let them pick any one thing in the whole place really ends up wandering the store with increased anxiety at the unlimited choices before her, and ultimately ends up settling for a toy instead of choosing one she really wanted. Adults are just as bewildered as the kids when it comes to choosing "enough." Another recent study showed that women who shop at the grocery store for their families enjoy selecting from among perhaps half a dozen varieties of pasta. When the shelves were purposely stocked with over twenty-five choices they found the dilemma overwhelming. The higher number of pasta choices left them feeling frustrated and wondering if they could have chosen a better variety of pasta. Instead of making a choice they felt good about, they eventually gave up searching and settled for what appeared "good enough." How does this play out in the dialog between money and happiness? It seems that even when it comes to money itself, we don't know when enough is enough. So the theory that more money brings more happiness is simply not true. Remember, money is great for our sense of well being once our basic needs are met, but from that point on it does very little to lift happiness or personal satisfaction. According to Money magazine one of the reasons we overestimate how much pleasure we'll get from having more money is that, "Humans are adaptable creatures, which has been a plus during assorted ice ages, plagues, and wars. But that's also why you're never all that satisfied for long even when good fortune comes your way." People who don't have much money around the world who responded that they felt rich were asked why. The answers from around the world were almost identical. They had their health, they had their family, and they all had good friends. As for Kyle and his friend, the economy naturally turned, people with good credit were tapped, and the need for yet more cash to keep everything from failing became unsustainable. "Our son and daughter-in-law were not even out of their twenties and they were essentially ruined," says Judy. Millions of dollars in debt, hundreds of people angry and damaged, and several pending investigations on the legality of the whole business now beguile any last chance at finding real peace--at least for a long time. And in reality, everything they had was really obtained on borrowed money; although they looked the part, they never were rich--not even close. *If It Sounds Too Good to Be True ...* As Martha Washington explained, "The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions, and not on our circumstances." The fact is, as all of this research ultimately demonstrates, we will be happy and satisfied if we choose to be; happiness is a decision, not a result. The bigger problem involves a loss of perspective. Whether it's the credit score investment scheme, frequently practiced scams like cheating on taxes or fudged commission reports, or even something like online gambling, there will never be a lack of opportunities to (supposedly) get rich quick. But what gets forgotten with those who head down one of these paths is that nothing worth having ever comes easily--and that includes happiness. Money can provide things, but it cannot provide peace. Only truth can provide peace (such as truth in our financial dealings), and only peace brings true happiness.
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