Volume XVII, Number 3 Fall 2020
Recently I was contacted by a Catholic girls’ high school senior who was looking for answers to questions she had developed for a research project. She said:
Message: I am doing a research project on how money can affect a person's happiness. I came across your name while researching the topic. If there is any possible way I could send you a few interview questions for my research, that would be amazing! Just let me know and thank you for your time!
I agreed to answer her questions, and because they are still percolating in the minds of many, I suggest that you compare your observations and beliefs to mine.
Questions and Answers:
How have you noticed wealth affecting a person’s mental state firsthand?
How wealth affects a person’s mental state firsthand depends entirely on what wealth represents to the person. For example, wealth may represent status, power, security, family, love, hate, burden or one of many other qualities. The list of possibilities is very long. What wealth represents to the person will determine how and how much it affects the person’s mental state. In my book Beyond Gold, and on my website, there is a “Wealth Attitude Assessment” which, when completed, will reveal a lot about the effects of wealth on the quiz-taker’s current mental state.
In the past decade, have you seen any changes in the importance of wealth and the public opinion/value of wealth? If so, how?
No, I have not seen such changes in the past decade. In fact, if you read Sense and Sensibility (1811) or Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen – or even if you watch the movies of these novels, you will see that attitudes about the importance of wealth and the public opinion/value of wealth have not changed in over 200 years. These attitudes and behaviors are human nature and in western civilization they are not likely to change anytime soon.
Do you think the way a person makes their money (working to make their money vs. inheriting) affects their overall lifestyle and happiness?
Yes. People feel differently about the money they earn through their work and the money they inherit. This definitely affects lifestyle choices and happiness.
Do you believe a certain income level generates more happiness than others? If so, which income level and how so?
I have seen it written that about $70,000-$80,000 per year is the sweet spot for income level. I don’t know if I agree entirely, but I do believe this is generally and approximately correct. The idea is that it is healthy to have about the right amount, not more (possibly producing more responsibility, worry and fear about losing it) or less (possibly producing lack of necessities, worry and fear about not having enough resources).
Do you see any correlation between economic prosperity and happiness? If so, in what areas specifically?
Really, this is related to the question above. I would add that earning an income that you feel is respectable doing work that you enjoy contributes greatly to happiness and fulfillment. Often it works best to do work in which you are evaluated solely on your merit - like science, art or service, and this can be helpful.
Historically, in places that seem to have better education levels, clean water systems, weather, etc. do you see a change in happiness levels as well?
Yes, when basic needs are met, people become more available to be happy. The challenge is to manage what happens with the choices that result from having basic needs reliably met. It is important for each individual to be aware of how this pursuit of happiness works for them and to handle it well.
Do you believe that the quality of education (for example: public vs private schools) a person receives affects their happiness/success later in life?
Yes, but it is not as simple as public vs. private schools. Each student benefits by being in the best school for him/her. There are excellent schools both public and private. Parental guidance is usually what makes the difference.
In the past decade, have you seen any changes in the accumulation of wealth and/or poverty?
I have not, but I only work with wealthy individuals and families on their identity, relationships and family dynamics. This population – remember they have sought out my services and they usually want to grow – looks stable from my point of view.
What do you believe is the main cause for a person’s desire for wealth?
To a great extent it is the desire we all have to survive and thrive. Wealth is an asset in our society, like beauty, intellect or athletic ability. It is no secret that it is positive to have an abundance of any of those assets. Wealth is a big, desirable asset and resource in our society. It is important to earn wealth in a constructive way. When people receive it too easily without consequences for bad behavior it only leads to unhappiness.
Do you believe the amount of wealth a person’s family has during childhood can encourage/discourage a person’s need to accumulate wealth later in life?
Yes, and it can work either way. A person might be motivated to create financial success because they experienced this kind of success with their parents or grandparents growing up. However, it can work the opposite way too. Sometimes when a person grows up with wealth, they choose to pursue a simple life and live on very little. It’s the same thing when a person’s family during childhood lacks resources. Some people are then motivated to make a better life for themselves when they are adults while others believe themselves to be destined to poverty.
Do you think that vast fortunes should be held in trusts until that person is of a certain age? If this was the case, how would that affect that person's work ethic and mental state later in life, if at all?
Yes, when people are young, under about 40-50, it is best for them to get out in the world and make a meaningful life for themselves. This is usually undermined by receiving a “vast fortune” in those young years. The resources of a vast fortune at a young age are typically de-motivating. This is what I advise parents to tell their children: “You will receive a great starter kit from us. You will get an excellent education, including an advanced degree or a professional education like law or medicine, you will get some money to start a business and get started in a home. But you will not get so much that you will not have to work.” Saying this to teens and young adults can encourage them to get out into the world and make a meaningful life for themselves.
Do you believe that money offers the answer to happiness or has any correlation with actually making a person happier? If not, what does?
No, money alone does not make a person happier. We all need to have our basic needs met, so a modest level of income is required. But beyond that, the factors determining happiness have more to do with character than with anything else. What contributes to happiness is the person’s quality of life. Do they know their values? Are they aware of their priorities and are these priorities based on their values? Are their actions based on their priorities? Are they doing work that they love? Are they helping others and contributing to society in some way? Are they kind and loving and do they inspire these qualities in others? Do they have a strong spiritual practice, as this, too, contributes to happiness?
All of these are good questions, and what strikes me about them is how prevalent and persistent the association of money and happiness is in our society. It’s almost as if all of the other assets and capital we have don’t matter. Yet in my thirty years of working with wealthy families and individuals, my observation is that character, purpose and living one’s values build the only sure path to happiness.
© 2020 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.