I grew up on a ranch. Dad always taught me to never leave a horse alone in the hay barn. The reason, he explained, was that horses would eat themselves to death. That’s right, if horses can get access to a lot of easy to eat feed they will quit eating only when their bloated stomachs burst.
For this reason Dad never considered horses all that smart. I have found it’s not all that uncommon for human beings act a lot like horses around money. There’s been a lot of recent research on whether money can buy happiness. The answer is a little murky.
Some research suggests that for Americans’ $75,000 a year pays for an enough of the good life to reduce stress and produce a sense of security and optimism. This research indicates that increasing income over that amount has a decreasing impact on additional life satisfaction. In other words, more money helps a little but not all that much.
What becomes much more important once our needs are met is the quality of our personal relationships, the satisfaction of our work, and the joy of our lifestyle.
Newer research says that making more money can increase your happiness a lot if you know what makes you happy. In this research it’s not about how much money you make so much as what you spend your money on that determines your happiness. Spending money on experiences that broaden your mind, stimulate new knowledge and positive feelings is high on the list of happy activities.
So is charity… people who spend significant amounts of their income on relieving suffering or solving serious human problems report higher levels of intrinsic self-worth and life satisfaction. The sad fact is that a relatively small group of super wealthy people spend their time helping others or improving their inner life from their outer life experiences. Their most favorite activity is making more money and spending more money on stuff.
Here are the three most common pitfalls about how money can make us miserable or how we can act like horses in the barn full of hay.
1. Your money owns you. Years ago I had a friend who worked for a billionaire heiress. Her father had made an enormous fortune from a business that just wouldn’t stop spewing money. The heiress spent nearly all of her time keeping track of all her stuff. She owned houses all over the world filled with furniture she rarely used. She had yachts in two oceans and enough clothes to fill several department stores.
She had a staff whose jobs was to keep all these possessions form falling into disrepair and help her find the latest version of nearly everything. Managing these people and making decisions was her full-time job. All this made her very stressed-out and my friend reported she was almost never in a good mood because she was always worried about something she owned or wanted to own.
2. Social comparison. Social research confirms that the one common measure that human beings use to gauge their well-being is how they’re doing compared to their neighbors. That’s one reason why people who live in ghettos can be very happy. They may not be rich but compared to the people they live around they’re not so bad off.
One mistake newly successful people often make is moving to a neighborhood they can barely afford. Although they were once happy with their $30,000 car now they seem miserable because all their neighbors have $50,000 cars. Trying to keep up with the richer “Joneses” is a prescription for continuous stress.
3. Untamed ambition. Humans are meaning-seeking beings. And that makes us feel good about ourselves… but not that good. There will always be people with more status or more stuff which threatens our inner peace if it’s built on validating ourselves by what we accomplish, where we live or what we drive. Yet research confirms that much of our ambition is built on a never ending drive to achieve or to compete. Those are very useful motives but are poor foundations for experiencing deep life satisfaction.
In worldwide research, the happiest people are those whose lives reflect their inner values and their choices bring them closer to their circle of loved ones whether they are family or friends. We are all motivated by the things we want but do not have.
The wisest among us are continually making sure the things that they want are relevant to their genuine happiness. Continually seeking more of what you used to not have… Now that is what a very dumb horse would do.