Money really doesn’t buy happiness

Last week we learned James Packer stepped down from various business roles. The reason given was “mental health issues”. The news feed suggests he’s struggling with anxiety and depression. These are conditions in their own right. They’re also the two main symptoms of a whole raft of mental health conditions.

It turns out James Packer and my Dad had more than one thing in common.

Like James Packer, Dad was the 4th generation to inherit wealth. Dad’s family didn’t have Packer family level of wealth. However they were rich pastoralists in Victoria whose ancestors had found gold on their farm in the 1850’s. Based on any measure of success we use, finding a gold mine on your farm is pretty good!

Dad also had mental health issues. He was diagnosed with Bipolar in 1997 (before then it was called manic depression). It gradually destroyed his quality of life up until he passed in 2011.

Dad’s life was not a happy one. He did hold down a job until the early 90’s. He paid off a house (thanks to Mum’s ability to manage on very little). He was an avid reader, and my secret weapon in English Literature in Year 12. His greatest pleasure was tinkering with VW cars in the backyard.

There’s a key difference between James Packer and Dad (other than the size of their wealth). My grandfather passed away in 1959. Dad inherited 50%, my grandmother the other 50%. In the 60’s, Dad lost all of his inheritance. My grandmother disinherited him when she died in 1981. He went from being born with a silver spoon to having nothing.

He told my brother that he found the money to be “toxic”.

What does that mean? The eldest (in this case only) son of a rich man has a lot of expectations put on what he does with his life. What happens when he fears he’s not living up to those? That was the meaning I put on the word “toxic”.

I learned this at the same time James Packer getting into a fight with his friend hit the news. What my brother told me about what Dad had said gave me at least some insight into what may fuel that level of anger.

I realised then that Dad was probably happier without the money. If I’m very honest with myself, so were the rest of us. We never wanted for anything (and I got a headstart in life many others don’t). “Keeping up with the Jones” was never part of it.

I now manage other people’s money, and teach business owners how to make good financial decisions. Where did I learn how to do that?

There’s a world class education & 25+ years of experience. However, it’s all grounded in two examples I got at home:

· How to manage money well from Mum

· How not to be “attached” to it and look for self worth from it from Dad

In 2011 I left corporate and went freelancing, also in response to mental health issues. I simplified my life substantially to focus on my health. I’m still in a good financial position. All of this was possible because of what I learned growing up.

In my work I meet people who have significant wealth. What I’ve noticed is the more you have, the more fear there is around how much you can lose. Fear does strange things to the most beautiful humans you’ll ever meet. When it comes to money, those fears often come out.

Detaching money from my sense of self worth gives me perspective in managing these situations.

Financial anxiety for those who don’t have enough is crippling. Hence statements like “money doesn’t buy happiness” can be hard to take. That shouldn’t be underestimated.

Once you have enough to cover basic needs plus a little extra for “simple pleasures”, the anxiety can reduce or disappear. Personally, when I reached that point I wasn’t any happier. It just gave me more capacity to worry about other things.

Having to manage early on with very little taught me the life lessons I needed to be confident with money. It’s confidence, vs the quantity you have, that seems to make the difference on the role it plays in your life.

So if money doesn’t buy happiness, where do you find it? Now there’s a big question! Let me draw from a seminar on the topic I went to recently. There’s 3 common elements that come through in the research:

1. A sense of purpose.

2. A focus on others. There will be those who struggle to find compassion for someone like James Packer. Especially given a lot of his current wealth is based on gambling, for example.

3. Being vulnerable. Brene Brown is the accepted guru on this one.

For those in the startup entrepreneur community, it’s well known you’re not very likely to hit the “pot of gold” if your main focus is the financial outcome. That does back up the first element around purpose.

James Packer has taken the step of focusing on his health. In the business world that does make you feel very vulnerable. Perhaps there’s a first step for him.

Like Jeff Kennett I’m sorry he’s had to go through. As a recovered mental health patient and a member of the business community I do have some awareness of how hard this would be.

Hopefully this path will lead to some happiness for him. One thing’s for sure — it won’t be money that’ll get him there.