Reader Request Week 2021 #7: Does Money Satisfy?
Steve Calhoun asks:
Does the money satisfy? I mean this sincerely. I know it’s probably nice to be rich. And I’m personally much better off this year than I’ve been in years past but I also find that obtaining some of the things I’ve wanted while I was poor for decades don’t necessarily make me feel better. So, Scalzi, what is best in life? And what, other than 5 part guitars, do you spend your money on?
First, a clarification: It’s a six-part guitar.
Second, having been both poor and rich (in the context of being an American, and, more broadly, a member of the developed world), I can say that in my experience money doesn’t satisfy, it alleviates. In drug terms, money’s not a mood-lifter, it’s a painkiller.
What on earth are you saying, Scalzi, if I was given a million dollars my mood would definitely lift! Well, sure. Speaking from experience there is a definite short-term bump that comes from suddenly having in your possession a larger sum of money than you would experience on a day-to-day basis. But also speaking from experience, that euphoria is both short-lived (the hedonic treadmill of money moves quickly), and usually masking a wider and more complex emotional response to the money. Give most people a (to them) large sum of money — or make it possible for them to have a stable and comfortable income — and after the happy shock wears off, what they feel is often something like relief. That money can go to solve problems: rent and bills and things that can make life better and less precarious.
This is what I mean by money being a painkiller. So many of so many people’s day-to-day problems are caused by the lack of money. Lack of money causes uncertainty, anxiety and worry — causes pain. When you have money that pain goes away, and depending on the amount of money involved, that pain can go away pretty much permanently. When you don’t have pain, you don’t think about that pain, and you don’t think of all the things you have to do to manage that pain. You just… get to do and think about other things.
Generally speaking, you don’t need all that much money to avail yourself of its painkilling properties. People like to talk about a specific number — $75,000 is the number I see a lot as being the amount after which any more money doesn’t add much to your emotional happiness — but I think it’s more that when all your needs are economically taken care of, and a reasonable percentage of your wants are achievable, if not immediately at least over a not-too-onerous amount of time, then money has achieved its analgesic duty. You’re free to live your life away from a certain type of discomfort.
But it doesn’t mean all your problems are solved, and it doesn’t mean you’re happy. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It can buy material comfort, and a certain amount of security, neither of which is to be discounted. But they’re not the same thing. And like any painkiller, too much money can create problems and pains of its own, and it can be abused. If you don’t understand money and how to manage and use it, having too much of it can become a curse, especially if it is suddenly dropped into one’s lap. There’s a reason lots of lottery winners struggle with their new-found riches.
In my own personal life, I don’t notice myself being particularly happier now, when I have money, then I was when I was in my 20s and making substantially less, or as a kid when I was poor. I feel a lot less uncertainty, economically speaking, but that’s about it. I had a not great year in many ways in 2020, for example, even though financially speaking it did just fine for me. I will note that in a general sense I’m happy enough, and even in a less-than-great year like 2020 I was happier more days (and happy on average on more days) than when I was wasn’t. But money wasn’t a driver in my happiness or lack thereof. I’m not unhappy because of money issues, but not having money issues doesn’t make me happier overall.
I know people who have more money than I do, and those who have less. The happiness they feel as individuals is all over the board. There is no real correlation between money and happiness, save that the folks who have less money can be made unhappy by economic concerns. But I feel pretty sure that if everyone in the US suddenly didn’t have to worry about rent and bills and health insurance and whatever, that a year later the general happiness quotient would be about the same. It’s great not to worry about your bills! But you do find other things to be unhappy about.
So what does satisfy? I think it depends on the person. For me, I admit to finding a particular level of material possession satisfying; you could call it “upper-middle-class with weird hobby expenditures.” That taken care of, what I find satisfying in life is less tangible: good relationships with family and friends, a certain number of intellectual pursuits, the ability to write for a living. There are things I want in life, but none of them are down to money at this point. I would like to be able to play most of my musical instruments better! But no amount of financial expenditure will do that. I just need to practice more.
As for what I spend my money on: Well, most of it, I don’t spend. Inasmuch as most of our material needs and desires are taken care of within our income, and we are fortunate at this point not to have medical or other expenses that are a substantial amount of what we bring in, most of what comes in goes into savings and investments. We give a fair amount to charity on an annual basis, because we can and should. There’s the occasional splurge, like ridiculous guitars. And we improve the house a little bit at a time to make it nicer to live in. This year we’ll be redoing the master bath! I’m actually really looking forward to that.
So, no: Money doesn’t satisfy, it just can solve some problems that can make life unsatisfactory. The rest really is on the individual to do with their life what is necessary to provide satisfaction and happiness. That’s different for every person, and I wish each of us success in finding what those things are.