The answer to “If I were a rich man”

by | April 13, 2015

Remember Tevye’s lament in Fiddler on the Roof?

If I were a rich man, so goes his hypothesis, I’d be the happiest, most contented man alive.

Don’t tell me you’ve never had similar thoughts. You may not have belted out your thoughts in song while you danced a little jig, but we’ve all had those thoughts.

If only money weren’t so tight…
If only we could travel a little more…
If only we could buy a bigger house…

If only, then…

Funny thing is, research has answered the question for us all unequivocally.

Let me ask you this: Given the choice between winning the lottery and becoming a paraplegic, which would you choose?

Easy enough choice, right? Then answer for me why research shows that, one year after their life-changing events, lottery winners and paraplegics report equal levels of happiness.

Happiness researcher Dan Gilbert found an answer in the phenomenon psychologists have dubbed “impact bias,” meaning the tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events.

In other words, along with Tevye, we far overestimate the happiness, satisfaction, contentment we’ll experience when we become rich and famous.

According to research, if we were rich, it wouldn’t be all it’s cracked up to be. In fact — we’d actually be less happy.

The American Psychological Association reports,

“…when people organize their lives around the pursuit of wealth, their happiness can actually decrease…Once individuals have enough money to pay for their basic needs of food, shelter, etc., money does relatively little to improve happiness. Further, increases in neither national economic growth nor personal income have much effect on changes in the personal happiness of citizens.

“…people who ‘buy into’ the messages of consumer culture report lower personal well-being…Individuals who say that goals for money, image, and popularity are relatively important to them also report less satisfaction in life, fewer experiences of pleasant emotions, and more depression and anxiety.”

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I thought about Tevye and this quirk of human nature when James Allen recently walloped me with this earth-shaking insight:

“It is not scarcity that produces competition, it is abundance; so that the richer and more luxurious a nation becomes, the keener and fiercer becomes the competition for securing the necessaries and luxuries of life.

“Let famine overtake a nation, and at once compassion and sympathy take the place of competitive strife; and, in the blessedness of giving and receiving, men enjoy a foretaste of that heavenly bliss which the spiritually wise have found, and which all shall ultimately reach.”

Compare a poor, humble farming family with an industrial family worth millions. When the heirs pass away, which family is more likely to feud?

Fascinating, right? The more wealth there is for everyone to share, the more we squabble over it.

Why do we envy fame and riches? I once studied the life of Michael Jackson and I can tell you I wouldn’t wish his hell of fame on my worst enemies.

Why, exactly, does abundance create competition, strive, envy, and jealousy?

I believe Theodore Roosevelt provided the best and simplest answer: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

In a state of relative scarcity, you, me, and the Joneses are all pretty much equal. But in abundance, we’re all gawking at the Joneses as they drive home with that shiny new car, buy that big house, go on that luxury vacation.

And while we’re gawking at them, we completely forget that we are swimming in rich and abundant blessings of our own.

And now I understand why Einstein said,

“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”

Leo Tolstoy made it even more clear:

“Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.”

It’s no fun being poor. But becoming rich isn’t the solution.

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