Wealth and happiness are not mutually inclusive. Nowadays that discord is ever more apparent — there are many examples of billionaire families ripped apart by unhappiness while in the slums of Khayelitsha, a township in South Africa, penniless children can be found filled with boundless joy.
As Aristotle states: “Happiness is the most important thing in life, the sole aim and end of human existence.” As a happiness expert and executive coach, I am often asked how to navigate the relationship between money and contentment. My answer is a simple one: ‘what truly matters?’
In a general sense, money is a proxy for happiness. What else affords us our luxury vacations, our children’s education or a healthy glass of Château Lafite?
However, our relationship with money changes significantly over time. In our youth, finding our way in life, we require a greater focus on money to stabilise our needs and maximise our future trajectory. As life unfolds and we achieve greater security, increasing our income stream serves our well-being less. So as we get older we should spend more time developing other qualities.
It’s the same for nations as it is for individuals. Developing nations are right to focus on increasing wealth, growth or GDP. As has been consistently demonstrated by advanced nations for the last two centuries, bringing the lowest earners out of poverty directly increases happiness. But now those advanced nations are learning that maximising wealth beyond a certain point also suffers diminishing returns.
The point is this. If what truly matters — our needs — change with our life circumstances, so should our relationship to money and wealth. Recognising these differing stages is essential. What truly matters — the motives and purpose — which drove us in our 20s is different to our mid-life and later-life years. So we must adjust accordingly.
And while money does provide that incremental asset, it’s healthy to observe what is really driving our happiness on a personal, micro level. One of my favourite practical tools is measuring your happiness: give yourself a happiness score out of 10 on a daily basis.
We then begin to analyse ‘why was today a four and yesterday a seven?’ What causes these upticks and downticks is what really makes us happy. We start to observe the truth. In most instances it’s the simple, and, in fact, costless, things in life that matter most: our family, friends, a smile, reading a book or our favourite piece of music.
And when we are able to focus on what truly matters to us, right now, or at least for the immediate future, numerous benefits accrue. We make the right decisions, spend time with the right people, and lead our life with motivation and purpose. We therefore find our lives more exciting, empowered and energised.
So regularly re-assessing what truly matters, and with it our attitudes and desires over money, is essential. Having a healthy, open, flexible understanding of the merits and drawbacks of wealth and its trappings is more necessary than ever before. Especially as the foundations are shifting and the correlation gets more distorted.
Andrew Stead is an internationally renowned happiness expert and executive coach. Ex-head of convertible bond trading at Goldman Sachs and successful environmental entrepreneur, he founded Your Daily Bread to help people and organisations improve their health, wealth and happiness. More information can be found at your-daily-bread.co.uk.