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Crying in a BMW: Money, Materialism and the Pursuit of Happiness

Seven years ago a 20 year old female contestant on a Chinese TV dating show was asked by an unemployed suitor whether she would ride a bicycle with him. Her reply became infamous in China and around the world: “I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle.”

The cries of indignation were predictably loud, as were the stern voices condemning the materialistic culture that has led us to value things over happiness. “What an awful, crass person that 20 year old is” we all thought, self righteously assuring ourselves that we would never sacrifice our happiness for material goods.

And yet, if an alien arrived on earth (particularly in Hong Kong), watched our behavior and tried to figure out what human beings wanted, the answer would probably be “money”, and the goods that money buys us. We want an apartment, and then a bigger apartment. A car, and if we’ve got that, a bigger and faster car, and then a second or third car. More expensive and beautiful clothes, top of the line appliances, dinners whose price tag could feed an ordinary family for a week. And the sacrifices we make for these things….the time away from family and friends, the relationships that languish, and sometimes even the lies we tell and the people we betray.

Why do we put so much effort into pursuing wealth, and relatively little into pursuing what we all really want, which is happiness? One part of the answer is that early in our work lives, money does indeed bring some happiness. There is great satisfaction in being able to support oneself, being independent, and owning the essentials of life. We understand that while money doesn’t buy happiness, poverty is likely to lead to misery. And since earning money made us happy when we were in our 20’s, it feels like earning even more money should make us happier when we’re in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Of course, that’s like saying “Since having a roof over my head and three meals a day makes me happy, having two roofs over my head and six meals a day will make me even happier.” So the buzz we get from our first paycheck isn’t matched by the buzz from our hundred and first paycheck.

Social pressure plays a part. Advertising glorifies the rich. TV shows worship their lifestyles. Magazine articles tell us how to become wealthy. Perhaps more important are the social circles we belong to. As our friends become more financially comfortable, the things they do and the topics they talk about change. If we have to celebrate our birthday with a dinner at Outback while our friends are talking about their getaways in Hawaii, Phuket and Bali, we’re going to feel different and excluded. Social exclusion is extremely painful, so it’s no wonder we chase money and things in order to avoid it.

Material goods and money also can give us a feeling of competence and power. A new handbag, a fancy car, a top of the line phone…people notice us when we have them. We feel attractive, admired, even envied, and that feels wonderful. Unfortunately, these feelings don’t last very long, and pretty soon we need another purchase. Over time, we become acclimatized to the ‘rush’ that we get from new things, and we need bigger things, more things and more often — a situation that rarely ends well. To make matters worse, the feeling of competence and power that we get by accumulating or displaying material goods and money generates the opposite feeling in those around us: we make others feel incompetent and powerless. This drives a wedge between us and our friends, making intimacy more difficult. And the research is unanimous on that issue: Not having intimate relationships is a sure route to unhappiness.

Money is also a yardstick for the value that we provide. It’s a poor yardstick — few would argue that a star singer, actor or sportsman should make hundreds of times more money than, say, a teacher moulding the next generation — but it’s still a yardstick. Within an organization, it’s a way of indicating importance, talent and contribution. And so the relentless drive for money can be seen as a way of asking the powers-that-be to recognize us. Perhaps getting a salary increase isn’t that different from having our parents praise and reward us.

Last, but by no means least, is the fact that it’s a lot easier to chase money than it is to chase happiness. Often we don’t know what to do to make ourselves happy. Even if we know what to do, we rarely know how to do it, which is why there are so many self-help books in the world. As a species, we are spectacularly bad at figuring out what we need to do to become happy. (Read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert to see exactly how bad we are, and for ideas to get around the problem.) Money, on the other hand, is clear and simple, and the path to making more is fairly clearly marked, even if not easily followed. And so money becomes a substitute. We tell ourselves that if we just had a salary of such-and-such, THEN we’d be happy. If only we had enough money to buy that car, or take this holiday, own that handbag, or retire, THAT would do it. It’s both an explanation for our current unhappiness and a goal to strive for, one that we expect will deliver the goods.

Money is a false god. We chase it for very good reasons, but in the end it betrays us. The pursuit of this false god leaves us increasingly dissatisfied, and if we are ‘fortunate’ enough to be successful and become rich, we find that money hasn’t delivered the goods, and that our wealth hasn’t affected our happiness in any meaningful way.

So if we’re not going to chase money, and we’re going to focus on happiness instead, what do we do? That will be the subject of next week’s article.


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