We’ve all heard that money can’t buy happiness, yet most of us live as if it is the key to happiness. Why? Well, if you ever had to worry about a bill, you know that lack of money can definitely cause unhappiness. It seems natural to conclude that the opposite is true — money will make us happy. Most of us stick with our own conclusion from our own experience of not having money and ignore or rationalize away those who say otherwise as either lying or delusional. But the truth is easier to see when we remove the distorting effect of the word “money” and consider universal human needs aka Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

We are miserable when we are thirsty, but all the water in the world is not going to make us happy once we quench your thirst. Same with food, shelter, esteem, friendships, love and self actualization. We are miserable without them, but they can’t make us happy, such is the nature of need.

When it comes to intangible needs above food, shelter and security; it’s not the lack of what we want, but the idea that we may never get what we want that causes unhappiness. It’s not the desire or pursuit of money that make us unhappy, but the fear that it might be ultimately futile. Since we do not have complete control over our future, it’s impossible to dispel this fear. Are we are doomed to a life of misery because we might never get rich or famous or fall in love?

Not necessarily. Have you noticed that when you are happy, it’s much easier to forgive? Yet the inability to forgive is the source of much unhappiness. This seems to be an universal rule of some sort, because you can substitute “forgive” for “make money”, “find love”, “gain respect”, “be creative” and the rule still holds. It’s easier to make money, find love, gain respect and be creative when you are happy, and harder if you are not.

Money, love, respect, forgiveness, creativity, whatever you desire in life, they are almost impossible to get when you need them to be happy, but you will have it in spades when you stop needing it. Why? Because when you don’t need something to be happy, you no longer fear not having it, which ironically puts you in a much better position to get it.

The truth is, you will never have those things if you are deeply unhappy; and if you somehow had them, you will soon lose them. The key to happiness is not to have money, respect or even love, but to not need them in first place. Note, I said need, not want. Wants and needs are two very different things. Needing causes unhappiness, but wanting is actually essential to happiness. Anyone who has experienced depression can attest that one of the primary symptoms is the lack of desire for anything. On the other hand, there are few things as exciting and life affirming as going after what you want.

It’s invigorating to want, and it’s miserable to need - the difference is entirely based on how you see the situation. If you need things to be happy, then you are most likely miserable no matter what you have. If you can find happiness within yourself, it becomes much easier to want something without needing it, and you’ll be happier and more likely to get what you want.

So why do we feel like we need, rather than want money, no matter how much we have? Because money has become synonymous with esteem in our culture, and esteem is a universal human need. This hasn’t always been the case, of course. It seems ridiculous now, but esteem used to be tied to one’s lineage, one’s social class, one’s piety, to name a few.

The point is, equating money with esteem is actually a relatively recent phenomenon.

Should we simply abandon money? No, it’s one of the most powerful human inventions and has fueled the progress of our civilization since the very beginning. Our society simply cannot function without it. The problem isn’t with money, but with equating it with one of the basic human needs — esteem. By equating money with esteem, we’ve turned a want into a need and thereby dooming ourselves to misery.

Clearly, the rich believes that money should garner esteem. We all love to play games in which we are winning. But should the rest of us play when the house always win? Should we continue to believe in an idea that makes 99% of us miserable by design? Remember, only 1% of the people can be the top 1% by definition, and despite all the rags to riches stories, social mobility is at an all time low in the second Gilded Age.

Note, I’m not saying we should disrespect people with money. We should absolutely respect people who are successful based on their own efforts. I’m simply saying respect the effort, not the money that may or may not come as a result. I don’t see how it’s possible to respect those who simply inherited their money.

As long as we choose to collectively buy into the idea that money and esteem are synonymous, we will always need, not want money. But if we reject the idea that money should equate to esteem, we’ll free ourselves to pursue money without fear. We will be more likely to succeed and happier in the process. What’s not to like? Disappointing rich people? :)

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