Let’s start with an old question: can money buy happiness? Few would argue that money has no impact upon their day-to-day contentment. Who among us doesn’t long for more leisure time, property, and financial security? Most research and philosophy, however, does not support the proposition that the mere accrual of vast sums of wealth would simply make one happy and fulfilled.
Daniel Kahneman, the famed Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, wrote:
The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.”
Professor Kahneman developed the concept of focusing illusion to explain this behavior. He suggested that when an individual considers the importance of a single factor upon his happiness, that person tends to greatly exaggerate the weight of that factor, neglecting to consider numerous other factors that contribute to happiness. Kahneman concludes, “… Happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.”
In Zen and the Art of Making a Living, Laurence G. Boldt wrote, “Society tells us the only thing that matters is matter – the only things that count are the things that can be counted.” It is the intangibles, the content of the mind, heart, and soul that truly last with us.
Tal Ben Shahar, a prominent psychologist researching happiness, reports a significant shift in the way that young college students prioritize their goals:
In 1968, college freshmen were asked what their personal goals were: 41 percent wanted to make a lot of money, and 83 percent wanted to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. The pattern was significantly different in 1997, when 75 percent of freshman said their goal was to be very well off financially, and 41 percent wanted to develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” (Happier, 60).
This shocking research is evidence that this generation’s young people have become largely preoccupied with, and value, the attainment of personal wealth much more so than previous generations. This valuation of money and level of disregard (over time) of developing a meaningful philosophy of life should warrant concern as we have come to an understanding of the ill effects of single-minded pursuit of money has on society.
We can see this happening now. The trial of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife illustrates just how terrible the consequences of an insatiable pursuit of money can truly be. A one-time chairman of the Republican Governors Association, leading candidate for the Vice Presidency in 2012 (and a possible future Presidential candidate), Governor McDonnell was indicted on federal corruption charges that he and his wife accepted more than $165,000 in gifts (including trips on a private jet, a Ferrari auto, and a Rolex watch, along with lucrative shopping trips for his wife) from a diet supplement business owner who used the gifts to extract endorsements from the couple. Remarkably, the defense strategy has been to allege that the couple had a failed marriage, and thus they were incapable of conspiring to accept gifts together, a charge that has been refuted by several members of the former governor and his wife's staff. That the McDonnells would literally jettison their marriage for the sake of a legal defense indicates the corrosiveness of their unbridled and insatiable greed.
However, the type of behavior exhibited by the McDonells shouldn’t be particularly surprising, as research tends to support the debasing effect of money on one’s character. According to social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, "Wealthier people engage in more dishonest and unethical behavior, and these traits may follow them into the bedroom. In fact, research has found that power and wealth are linked to a higher likelihood of infidelity."
Former Governor McDonnell would have done well to heed the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won an unprecedented four consecutive Presidential elections (to put that achievement in perspective, neither major party has won four consecutive Presidential elections since then). A wealthy man, Roosevelt nevertheless used his immense talents to enact the reforms of the New Deal. He once said: “Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” Our character is revealed by what brings us happiness.
Let us remember these words as we pursues a more equitable outlook on our financial considerations. Let us find the deep joy hidden within the most meaningful treasures in our lives.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”