Wait, Wait, I Want to Get Off

March 12, 2003
Why it's futile to seek satisfaction through financial status

We are by nature a competitive bunch. Unfortunately, too often we measure who we are and get our sense of identity, self-worth, and well-being by comparing ourselves to others.

We truly believe having more material possessions and more money will bring us happiness. It can for a time, but it doesn't last. After we reach a certain threshold of income, having more doesn't necessarily bring contentment. Shortly after we acquire something, our focus shifts on to the next acquisition. It's never ending and our acquisitions always seem less significant than we first thought. We are always seeking more. And so is everyone else.

Jessie O'Neill coined the term affluenza. She sees this as a harmful imbalance of peoples' relationship with money and the single-minded pursuit of it. People become so focused on this at the expense of their own health, significant relationships, and other responsibilities.

The middle-class family's purchasing power has virtually remained the same, but we are spending more than ever and support our expenditures by borrowing more and saving less. The average house in the U.S. today is nearly twice as large as its counterpart from the 50s. The average price of an automobile sold in the US now exceeds $22,000, up more than 75% from a decade ago.

Spending has been financed by debt. The average U.S. family carries more than $5,000 of unpaid credit card balance with interest rates ranging from 17-20% a year. Bankruptcy is at a record high--personal bankruptcy has increased at four times the rate in the 80s.

People are working longer hours, leaving less time for families and friends. We have less time for reading, traveling, exercising, and sleeping, and were taking shorter vacations. We are doing less of all the things that truly give us a sense of well-being (and that we are supposedly working for).

Robert Frank describes these changes in his book Luxury Fever. He believes that individual spending is contagious. We catch it by being in the presence of others who spend more than we do. The result is financial stress, making Americans physically ill and giving them no real advantage. He gives the example of purchasing a heavier vehicle to increase your protection from others. This then creates an incentive for them to do the same. Unfortunately, the protection level remains relatively the same, but at a higher cost.

We struggle with envy and resentment because we compare ourselves to others. It's natural to want more when we are around peers who spend more. Our frame of reference of what is acceptable shifts. "A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small, it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling," wrote Karl Marx. "But if a palace arises beside the little house, the house shrinks into a hut."

You may think you are not influenced by what others do. Let's consider some of your purchasing decisions lately. What are you spending for wedding and birthday gifts? How about a house in a good school district, vehicles to be safe, and clothes your children desire? Frank writes about the spending cascade. The higher level squeezes those in the middle to those in the lower to spend more. Spending levels increase throughout all income levels.

There are physiological changes that take place when we acquire a high status. The neurotransmitter of serotonin, which has to do with our feeling of contentment, rises when we acquire high status. So we actually feel good when we have high status and feel bad when we have low status.

In my practice I see several affluent families. You may ask, "What do they need to see you for?" It's simple--more and more people are realizing they are not happy without fulfilling relationships and having no time to spend with people they care most about. No one recognizes that their pursuit of money and material possessions is robbing them in the long run of what really brings contentment. It is their health, family, and personal relationships that are being neglected.

We need to stop looking at gaining acquisitions as a way to help us feel good because in the long run it doesn't work. Instead, figure out what will give your life some meaning, value, and purpose. Fill more of your time with an activity that you have always wanted to do. Devote more of your time and energies on relationships that matter most to you. Trust me, you'll feel better and happier for a longer period of time, and it can't be affected by what your neighbors are doing.

Bettyann Lichtenstein is a licensed clinical therapist. 

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