July, 2021: Just before I sat down to meditate, I got a stock tip. My buddy swore that this company was going to go from $8 to $300 in less than a year.
The first part of my meditation…wasn’t meditation. It was MONEYMONEYMONEY!!!
I ruminated on life’s big questions: New car?! Break my lease and move into a penthouse now or wait until the lease is up? Hire a stylist to upgrade my wardrobe? Oh and maybe I could get one of those new iMacs!
The fantasy of wealth absorbed me. There was no space between myself and my thoughts.
Out of the blue, a much wiser part of myself spoke up. It said, “If you want to be happier, focus on getting more sleep, not money.” I laughed, noticed myself unhooking from money lust, and came back into the present.
I never purchased that stock. Even if the tip pans out, the amount of stress and distraction it would cause isn’t worth it. For me, trading stocks – or crypto – means I’ll always be thinking about money, and I don’t want to shape my life that way.
Talking about money is hard, so before we dive in, I want to make three things clear:
1) I think having enough money to live with dignity and comfort is a human right. I believe that people who have enough money have a moral obligation to help those who do not. I also believe that the government has a moral obligation to ensure that all people have their material needs met.1
2) For most people – myself included – having enough money is a prerequisite for being happy.
3) I don’t think that money itself is inherently good or bad. It’s our attitude towards money and what we do with it that gives it a charge.
Ok, let’s get started…
There’s a weird tension between being happy and yearning to be rich, even though the two are often equated.
Happiness can only be experienced in the moment. It happens when you orient yourself to the here and now. It begs you to be aware of what’s working well, or at least well enough. Happiness asks you to slow down and savor it all.
Trying to get rich forces you to focus on the future. It requires rejecting the circumstances you find yourself in to wish for something different. It begs you to notice what isn’t working right now with the whispered promise of satisfaction later. It asks you to go fast and break shit. It wears busy work like a badge.
If you turn most of your attention to getting rich in the future, being happy is an unlikely outcome. If you turn most of your attention to noticing little moments of connection and beauty, you invite the possibility of a bit more happiness.2
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of having enough money and believing that more will make you happier or at least less anxious. I get it. I lived most of my life in that space. And when I got that stock tip, my mind raced to notice all the ways my life would be better if I had more money. It was as though I did some weird capitalist drug.
How much is enough?
To reiterate something that part of you already knows: money is a black hole. Once you have enough, aggressively pursuing more will muddle your happiness.
“Enough” is a complicated concept. Kahneman and Angus published an oft cited study in 2010 suggesting that about $75,000 is where income’s correlation to happiness ends. Factoring in inflation, that would be about $93,500 in 2021 dollars. That number seems about right.
But there are a lot of moving pieces here. $93,500 will go a lot further in rural Alabama than it will in the Bay Area. And many people who make enough still live at the edge of – or beyond – their means. If this is you, I get it. We live in a society that worships money, stigmatizes it, and fails to provide education around it, all at the same time. Having a healthy relationship to money is uncommon and requires intentional work.
Neither myself, nor social scientists, can tell you what’s enough in your exact situation. It’s worth taking some time to educate yourself about money and the psychology behind it. I like Ramit Sethi’s “I Will Teach You to be Rich” (Bookshop, Amazon) as a starting point.
What should you do once you have enough?
If you have enough money and still feel unhappy or insecure, reflect on the other areas of your life. The yearning for more is likely masking some deeper pain, anxiety, or inner injury. Check in on your mental and physical health, work, relationships, and how well you’re keeping the stuff that brings you down in check (drugs, alcohol, social media, TV, porn etc.). If any of those areas need some love, now is a good time to focus on them.
Zenfully, if you have enough but are still feeling anxious about money, you might try giving some of it away. Far too many people really don’t have enough money. They can’t purchase nutritious food, pay rent, buy shoes, or heat their homes in the winter. That’s fucked up. By giving some of your money away, you’ll contribute to fixing the problem (which will likely make you feel better) and you’ll have a quiet but omnipresent reminder that you already have more than you need. Though there are different ways to do this, I think that setting up a recurring monthly recurring donation to an organization you believe in is the best approach. Starting with $1 / month and scaling up when you can is totally cool.
- I strive to live into this. I give away a decent percent of my income every month. I vote for politicians who want to improve social support locally, nationally, and globally. I discount my services as a therapist for people who don’t have means. Most of my meditation classes are either free or donation based.
- Of course, it’s not that simple for all of us. Some of us have inner injuries that make feeling safe difficult. Please know that healing, flourishing, and transforming is possible – even for you. There are multiple paths forward. You just have to take the first step. Therapy and meditation worked well for me and are good starting spots for most people. The other reliable path – albeit a weirdly controversial one – is working with a psychiatrist to find the right medication to support your mental health.