There’s no denying that we worship wealth as a society. People with a high net worth and a big income get our respect, and even more, we think they deserve it because we measure success with money. And why wouldn’t we? Money is concrete. It’s easy to “size someone up” by looking at the nice things they have or the number of zeros in their investment portfolio. You can count it. You can measure it. You can see it.
Why We Use Money To Measure Success
The problem is that simplicity doesn’t always give way to truth. The truth is that success has little, if anything, to do with money. I don’t know anyone who ever wanted a million dollars just to hold it. Strip away all the value that we put in it as a society, and money is just so much paper. It’s not the money we want. What we want are all the great things that money gives us access to.
If you have money, you can buy a nice house and a nice car. You can live in a nice neighborhood and send your children to a nice school. You can eat nice food and go on nice vacations. You can give nice gifts and do nice things for others. These are the things that people care about, not the money.
I believe there are two reasons we default to measuring success with money. The first is because we adopt a limited meaning of the word success. Technically, success just means accomplishing an aim or purpose, but it has come to mean success in the rat race. As if life were a game that you either win or lose, we have defined success to mean “winning” in a limited domain of the human experience that nevertheless applies to most of the world’s population.
The second is because money can do so much for us. Money unlocks all of the luxuries that I pointed out above, but more importantly, it’s a symbol of the kind of success that society cares about. The more money you have, the more you’ve been “winning” at life, and the more you win, the more you get. The problem is that both of these are flawed paradigms.
Why Money Is a Poor Measure
To see this, I want to challenge you to envision a world where everything is in such abundance that everyone gets all the things they need and many of the things they want. If you’re part of the American middle class, you don’t have to imagine too hard; you probably already live this privileged life.
In this world, where money holds no value as a means of exchange, what does it mean to be successful? Surely it can’t be the same as before, success in the rat race? More likely, it means something like living a happy, fulfilling life, filled with novel experiences and lots of love. This suggests that our definition of success is, at best, limited in scope. If happiness and fulfillment matter when money doesn’t, why do they not matter in our current vision of success?
We can add to this vision of the world an understanding of the hedonic treadmill. If we acknowledge that more and better stuff isn’t a lasting source of success, and that our definition of success is limited, we see that money loses most, if not all, its value as a measure of success. Money can buy great things, but it doesn’t buy success in the sense of bringing fulfillment or long-term happiness.
Avoid the Money Trap
I say all of this to make a few crucial points. The first is that there’s no value to judging others based on their wealth, or lack thereof. Wealth says nothing about a person, except that they have a lot of money. It says nothing about how smart they are or how hard they work. It can’t be used to measure their integrity, their compassion, or their character. It doesn’t tell you if they’re a good friend, a caring parent, or a loving partner. Only a person’s actions can tell you these things.
Second is a word of warning. Pursuing wealth for its own sake or for the luxuries that it can afford you is a dangerous game. If you choose to do this, know that neither money nor luxury will bring you happiness on its own. You should have a plan for any money that you hope to accumulate that will bring you joy and peace. What really brings happiness are all the things that we’ve talked about before, like altruism, community, and intentional positivity, and money can only help insofar as it allows you to put more effort into those activities.
And finally, if you are currently money-centered, you might benefit from reorganizing your life to focus more on the things that you are postponing, which you probably expect money to bring you. It is the activities that money-centered people often sacrifice, like time with family, that bring the happiness they’re seeking. As with productivity in general, there is a balance to be struck between growing your wealth and enjoying what you already have.
It’s easy to default to using money as a means to value others, but doing so is simplistic and overlooks all of the important features of the human character and the human experience. Money doesn’t build character, nor does it imply success in life because success is a a holistic concept. Intrinsic success has nothing to do with making money and everything to do with finding happiness and fulfillment, while outward success comes from a combination of character and industry. Money says very little about any of these things.