High-tech professionals are often very anxious and worried they will never have enough money. They become preoccupied with what they need in order to think they are successful, believing that they will “arrive” when they have a certain total in the bank. What happens, though, is that the target shifts. If one company is sold, it may seem like the only path to success is to sell another one more quickly and for even more money. No dollar amount can end up being enough. Someone else has always made more.
This obsession with wealth often leads to anxiety and workaholism and it can become debilitating. There’s a term for how when a person achieves some wealth, her expectations for her ability to generate more wealth will rise as well, while resulting in no permanent gain in happiness: it’s called a “hedonic treadmill.” For example, if someone has a net worth of X, she won’t be happier if she has 2X, even if she achieved a major goal to get there. She’s already focused on how much happier she’ll be in achieving the next goal, robbing herself of happiness in the present moment.
Beyond the hedonic treadmill effect, there are studies showing that money really doesn’t buy happiness. We know this, yet we still strive for more. The costs of this preoccupation are high: it takes its toll on marriages, as conflicts about money are the primary reason for divorce in the early years of marriage. In addition, it can lead to seeking quick fixes in the form of short-term relief from their discontent through acts of self-sabotage, like by drinking excessively, using drugs, or by having extramarital affairs. Workaholics are often seeking to avoid pain – so they focus on money, thinking it will cure their distress.
If you’re preoccupied with wealth, there are ways to ameliorate the stress and other adverse effects this has on your life. You can focus on your values, decide what makes a meaningful life, be mindful of your worries, and fully enter into the present moment.
To create a meaningful life, it helps to differentiate between what creates happiness in the short term versus the long term. Material things create positive experiences but they are often fleeting. However, meaning is derived from finding a sustained higher purpose or by using your talents to serve something or someone larger than yourself. Viktor Frankl, a prominent psychiatrist who was in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote about how to create a life worth living in Man’s Search for Meaning. He posited that people can create a meaningful life “by creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Oftentimes preoccupation with wealth distracts from this ultimately fulfilling search to figure out our purpose, our talents, and what our best selves can be.
Managing worry, about money or about anything, is key to living a better life. In fact, worrying too much is a chief regret of the elderly. I recommend mindfulness tools for worry-management. Mindfulness can help especially with having unrealistic expectations and with living in the future versus the present. Paying attention in the present moment of your experience with flexibility, openness, and curiosity to your experience as it is unfolding is at the heart of mindfulness. You may learn to appreciate experiences of awe, such as hiking by majestic waterfalls, or observing your child learn something new. There are apps that can help you learn mindfulness, such as Buddify, Headspace, and 10% Happier. Listening to these apps for 5-10 minutes per day will help you to be more present and are likely to contribute to your feelings of well-being and to gratitude for your life. Employing mindfulness and refocusing on your values stand a better chance of helping you to create a life filled with both happiness and meaning.