When my friend Naren went to Abu Dhabi immediately after MBBS, I was very surprised. When he told me that his only intention of going was to make money, I pursed my lips. He was a good student. Was money his only agenda?
It turned out that he came from a poor family. His younger brother had just got into an engineering school. So he had to make money to help out the family.
He came back after five years and joined the health service. Though he never became a specialist, I have never heard him complain. He had some training in Palliative medicine and he became a sort of activist, doing voluntary work in his spare time.
When he took a big loan and started on a business venture with his brother as the active partner, I was again surprised. It was an unexpected move from him. He told me that he wanted to have a large corpus of money or passive income so that he could retire early. He wanted to devote all his energy into an NGO that he wanted to start to strengthen Palliative Care services in the community.
I grew up in those times when the parents said- money is not important. Eat well, do your homework. Score well in exams. The money will come.
Now I know that this is wrong. Money is very important. If I earn about the average in my reference group, I can be reasonably happy. After that point, it becomes increasingly difficult for money alone to increase our happiness. But money doesn’t ‘come’ if you just sit and do what you like. One has to pursue money to an extent. This is a paradox of our times. Balance is critical.
It is extremely crucial for what purpose you are using the money. Money for money’s sake could be an evil. When the focus is solely on material possessions, we are in a race to nowhere.
There are at least four ways one can aim to earn and use money that might increase personal happiness and the well-being of the community as a whole.
-To achieve some security and stability: insecurity is a detriment to happiness. You cannot be satisfied with life when you are wondering where the next meal is coming from. Will you have to move to another city to survive? Are you in danger of losing your job? Will you be able to support your family next month? What will you do if there is a sudden grave illness? Who will support you in your old age?
Total security is a mirage. We have to take life as it comes. But some security is needed. The problem in countries like India is that personal wealth is seen as the sole answer to all these questions. So people desperately strive to amass wealth. This leads to a materialistic mindset. This is especially true when the forces of modernity tears apart the security offered by family and community. The state has a role in ensuring that some basic security is available to its citizens when the times are hard. Otherwise no one can be satisfied with an optimum level of earning. Increase in the security and stability is a potent reason for some of the difference in happiness between the poor and the well-off.
To be generous: it seems strange, but acts of kindness benefits the giver as well as the recipient. Generosity increases our satisfaction. At the same time, it benefits society. We have to have money, if we have to give some away. To do voluntary community work, you have to afford free time.
To pursue good personal values and goals: A lack of money may prevent us from following what we believe in. Good goals involve good intentions towards society as well as towards one’s heart. Building and nurturing family, relationships, and community life are good goals.
To purchase good experiences: This particular aspect was brought out by Van Boven and colleagues in 2005. Their research suggested that experiences are also commodities that can be purchased by money. But they provide more durable improvements in well-being than material possessions. A family trip to the museum, a series of music classes or taking time out for a course which you always wanted to do are examples. Van Boven says that they win over possessions due to three key characteristics.
Good experiences are less prone to hedonic adaptation. The memory of the summer trip to the grandparents can become even better in retrospect. We instinctively tweak our memories so that they become more positive with time. A new car becomes just another car in three months time.
They are less amenable to comparison. You really can’t compare the magic show you went with the kids and the neighbour’s trip to Sri Lanka. Each experience is uniquely our own. Its value is subjective. People love telling one another about their experiences. it has been shown that people don’t envy other’s prospects of leisure or experiences as much as they do the material things or assets that others possess.
Good experiences are more social. Usually they involve family, friends or the wider community. They are the most important determinants of our sustained well-being.
In fact, any external factor to have a sustained effect on our life satisfaction, it has to have these three factors. They should be resistant to the terrible treadmill effect, they should leave lasting good memories, we should not be able to decrease their importance by comparing it with others, and they should have a relevance to people close to you, and even the wider society that you are in.