"Contentment is natural wealth; luxury is artificial poverty." ~ Socrates
How do you know if you are "better off" now than you were in the past? When you aspire to enable your children to be "better off" than you in their future, how is that accomplished? When I tell you that these questions (and their answers) are at the root of the greatest existential challenges of the modern world, it is no exaggeration.
Money is not the root of all evil but it is the most effective means of losing oneself. It is also the most effective means of getting votes in an election.
As America steps closer to a presidential election, the question "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" is used as a measure of success for the sitting president but this illusion is also applied to the collective success of the citizens of our country.
"It is the mind that maketh good or ill, that maketh wretch or happy, rich or poor." ~ Michel de Montaigne
But if we believe and teach our children, as the politicians tell us, that success is measured by one's net worth, what does that teach about one's self worth? I can tell you from speaking with thousands of people, sharing comments with hundreds of blog readers, observing the attitudes and behaviors of my financial planning clients and prospective clients, and from reading countless books on psychology, philosophy, money and happiness, that the world's message to its inhabitants, that one's identity and self worth are synonymous with money, material wealth and social status, is completely false.
As I have shared with readers in the past, the utility of wealth diminishes after the point at which one has enough money to pay for the basic physiological needs of food, shelter and clothing (plus a few of life's small material pleasures). For example, if a family in America can sustain a reasonable lifestyle with a household income of $70,000, an increase of income to $700,000 will not make them 10 times happier.
"We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have." ~ Frederick Keonig
There is no doubt that some people in the world are truly suffering because they are not able to provide for their basic physiological needs. However, there exists a larger, rarely communicated problem: The definition of "better off" is purely financial; the material, meaningless world grows in importance as the inner, meaningful world fades.
Until we are able to change the message that "better off" is more about meaning and purpose than money and prominence, we perpetuate the illusion that our self worth is measured financially; we equate high price with high value. I believe we can change this message by attaching new and accurate meanings to it.
You know you (or your children) are 'better off' when:
- Your money is now a tool for life and your life is no longer a tool for money.
- The value of health and time are higher in relation to money than it once was.
- The word "rich" is defined as enough, not more than you have now.
- Identity is now who you are, not what you have.
- You see more similarities than differences.
- You learn that seeking is the opposite of finding.
- Suffering ceases to be perceived as punishment or necessary sacrifice but as a temporary challenge that helps reveal meaning and purpose.
- You find yourself telling your children that doing what you love is more important than finding the high-paying job.
- You maintain the perspective that things can always be better but they can also be worse.
- You spend more energy on growing relationships than growing your brokerage account.
Can you think of others? I don't expect to completely erase the conventional line connecting financial status to the meaning of "better off" but I do believe that most people, deep within themselves, feel that there are many things in life more important and more valuable than money and material wealth. This inner truth simply needs to be uncovered from the debris placed upon it from outside sources.
"How you are seen by others becomes the mirror that tells you what you are like and who you are. You need others to give you a sense of self, and if you live in a culture that to a large extent equates self-worth with how much and what you have, if you cannot look through this collective delusion, you will be condemned to chasing after things for the rest of your life in the vain hope of finding your worth and completion of your sense of self there." ~ Eckhart Tolle
Ironically, politicians like to speak with fond and reverent recollection of the days when their parents were financially poor but they still managed to achieve incredible goals, uphold the highest of values, and pass these lessons on to their children. As the politicians tell their stories, tears well up in their eyes as they point to their parents in the audience and go on about how their mother and father were the greatest people in the world.
This is where the politicians are correct, although they won't explicitly communicate it: Life is the journey; meaning is found in the doing, the perspective, not in the results; the challenges are what shape us. And these ideals and accomplishments are not enabled by an increasing supply of money; they are enabled by meaning, purpose and the degree that people act as their authentic selves.
What the world needs is more people who are "better off," not because their net worth has grown but because their self-worth has grown. Ironically, when people act authentically, the unintended consequence is the attraction of more financial energy. These people are content--they are rich--regardless of the results because they live today, not in the past or future--who they are and what they do are aligned.