“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Money is one of the things Americans worry about most in the world. Even in 2018, when the economy was expanding, a survey by the life-insurance company Northwestern Mutual found that more than half of Americans felt anxious or insecure about money sometimes, often, or all the time. And during the pandemic, another survey found that workers were almost five times more likely to worry about money than their health.
That’s not to say that so many of us need to worry about money: A far smaller portion of Americans—11.4 percent, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau—live in poverty. And yet, according to a 2015 survey fielded by the financial-management firm UBS, more than half of Millennials with a net worth greater than $1 million feared losing their wealth “a great deal” or “somewhat,” as did more than a third of similarly wealthy Baby Boomers.
For millions of people, then, worrying about money is not a reflection of whether their basic needs are being met. In fact, this anxiety reflects deeper concerns that money can’t solve.
Worry has a nearly infinite ability to make our lives worse. In his 1948 book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie wrote, “Those who do not know how to fight worry die young.” The data support his claim: Researchers have found that psychological distress from sources including worry is associated with early mortality. Daily worrying can also lead to clinical anxiety, depression, and physical ailments such as lower-back pain, breathing difficulties, and stomach pains.
By contrast, money has only a limited power to make our lives better. Consider the hierarchy of needs proposed in 1943 by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow believed that people tend to focus on meeting their needs in a particular order of urgency. We start with survival needs such as food, shelter, and safety. Once these have been met, we turn our attention to social and emotional needs, such as love and belonging. Finally, we focus on higher-order needs such as self-actualization and transcendence—in other words, looking for life’s meaning.
Of these three levels, money is only truly helpful for the first. This is why economists often find that well-being doesn’t improve much once a person reaches the relatively modest financial means that meet those needs. The “middle needs” of love and belonging—family, friends, romance—can’t be met with money, and pursuing money with too much gusto can even cause people to neglect their relationships. Focusing too much on money is also actively opposed to Maslow’s highest-level needs, because doing so can lead people into a trap that researchers call “financial contingency of self-worth,” which happens when a person’s self-esteem is conditional on her financial success.
Not surprisingly, basing your self-image on your bank account can lead to unhappiness. In a 2020 study, my colleague Ashley Whillans and four co-authors asked a sample of 345 adults to react to statements such as “My self-esteem is influenced by how much money I make,” and “I feel bad about myself when I feel like I don’t make enough money.” Those who agreed were more likely to be lonely and socially disconnected. They also, not surprisingly, spent more time working alone than average.
Perhaps financially contingent self-worth is one reason stress is high both when money is tight and after people reach a higher income threshold. A 2018 survey conducted by LinkedIn found that stress at work falls when people earn more than $50,000, but then starts to rise significantly when people earn above $200,000. One 2016 study in China showed that unhappiness follows a gradual U-shaped curve, declining with moderate income and then increasing again as income rises to higher levels.
At low income levels, worrying about money can be perfectly rational. As I have written in the past in this column, insufficient income to meet one’s material needs is a major source of unhappiness. Sometimes, spending less time on family, friends, and faith is necessary in order to support yourself. In such situations, money still can’t buy happiness—but it can remove sources of unhappiness.
But what if, after assessing your life circumstances honestly, you find that you have passed through the zone of low-income worry and are still worried about money? Perhaps you have some extenuating circumstances, such as a lot of other people who depend on you for support, or a high level of debt. But if these cases don’t apply, your focus on money might be disguising other anxieties.
Perhaps your parents always put a lot of pressure on you to succeed financially, or you tend to be insecure about your self-worth and rely a lot on social comparison. One way or another, you might be measuring yourself in money, and implicitly hoping that at some point you will be “expensive” enough to earn others’ love and respect. Your instincts might be telling you to earn more, more, more in order to find peace and satisfaction. Your instincts are lying, and you could get much happier by reassessing your priorities.
One practice that can help in this project is to give more of your money away, instead of accumulating it or spending it on conspicuous goods. This time of year, you can find no end of good causes competing for your generosity. The voluntary act of giving is a way of demonstrating to yourself that you are not your money, that money is merely a means by which you can create value in your life and others’. Giving is an act of rebellion against your grasping, attached self.
You could also try working less while redirecting your time toward non-remunerative activities that give you benefits that are further up on Maslow’s hierarchy. Many hardworking people work constantly, including on their nights and days off. If that describes you on Saturday or Sunday, for example, start dedicating one of those days to self-actualization instead by reading works of wisdom, walking in nature, or engaging in meditation or prayer. Find a good cause and volunteer your time. Attend worship services. At first you might feel like you don’t have time for this. Soon you will find that you can’t afford not to do these things.
Backing off on your financial ambitions may feel like closing the door on prosperity, which might be a lifelong dream. But actually, it doesn’t mean that at all. “He who knows he has enough is rich,” Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching. In other words, you’ll be happiest if you’re rich in what really matters. Maybe that means you wind up with a lot of money, and maybe it doesn’t. The key is to remember that money can never be what makes you truly prosperous.