The Paradox of Affluence

I’ve always found it a curious juxtaposition that Americans follow up a day of being grateful for all they have (Thanksgiving) by engaging in a frenzied rush to accumulate ever more the very next day (Black Friday). It’s hard to fully appreciate the chaos and competitiveness of the latter ‘holiday’ without seeing it first-hand. A Swedish friend […]

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I’ve always found it a curious juxtaposition that Americans follow up a day of being grateful for all they have (Thanksgiving) by engaging in a frenzied rush to accumulate ever more the very next day (Black Friday). It’s hard to fully appreciate the chaos and competitiveness of the latter ‘holiday’ without seeing it first-hand. A Swedish friend used to spend Thanksgiving with her American boyfriend in the US and told me her favourite part of the trip was hitting Wal-Mart at 5:00 AM on Black Friday.  She likened it to being on safari, observing wild animals in their (un)natural habitat.  Now the craziness has gone global:  Videos on social media show aggressive bargain hunters battling it out in Brazil, Namibia…and of course here in the UK.  This may be good news for the economy (it wouldn’t be helpful to GDP if we were satisfied with what we had), but I worry what all this manic spending says about the state of our psyches.  

‘Consumption holds out a false promise that an internal lack can be fixed by an external means,’ says Psychologist Oliver James.   In his wonderful book, Affluenzahe goes on to highlight how the western world is trapped in cycles of striving and dissatisfaction. This drive to accumulate material goods and services appears to have addictive qualities. 

I’ve certainly seen this to be true in my personal and professional life, most recently working with a client who indulges her frequent Net-a-Porter habit in an effort to ‘buy myself happy.’   ‘Are you (happy)?  I asked. Her silence was telling.  This client is not an anomaly.  As the LSE Economist Richard Layard and many others have noted, depression has increased as our incomes have risen.  Enter the ‘Paradox of Affluence,’ a new-ish name given to the age-old truism that ‘money can’t buy you happiness.’ 

Thanksgiving day aside, a ‘never enough’ mindset seems to permeate even the highest income brackets according to recent research conducted by Professor Michael Norton of Harvard Business School (and reported in The Atlantic).  Professor Norton surveyed 2,000 American millionaires asking how much money they would need to be happy.  The answer?  Everyone says 2-3x more according to Norton.  Keep in mind the subjects were starting with a seven-figure net worth.  What gives?

Norton highlights two questions influencing our overall happiness:  Am I doing better than before?  And, Am I doing better than other people?  Pausing with these considerations for a few moments highlights the flaw in any ‘more is more’ attitude toward money and material goodies.  

Am I doing better than before?  The challenge here is how to measure ‘better’?  Do we keep updated accounting of laughs, kisses, smiles…?  Unlikely.  Were there more moments of joy, of connection this year than last?  Again, often hard to say.  Here is where money steps in to fill a ‘quantification void.’  Is my bank balance higher than last year? (Easily measured).  Is my car, my house, my favourite xyz ‘toy’ bigger or better than last year?  Objectively yes/no.  Money may be easy to quantify, but it’s a wonky scale for measuring happiness. I love what the always eloquent Krista Tippett said recently on her podcast: ‘Part of the problem – and part of the difference between now and the mid 20th century – is we don’t have a vocabulary of morality or worth or value except for the creation of wealth…(and for this) we are really impoverished.’ 

Am I doing better than other people?  On this measure, if we focus exclusively on the material, we will always come up wanting.  Comparison, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, really is the thief of joy.  Several psychological studies have shown it isn’t absolute but relative wealth linked to happiness.  This was challenging enough when it meant ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ but has become a supersized problem in an Instagram world of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians.’  It also sets us up for false hope because the goal posts are forever moving.  One client who was thrilled with his year-end bonus last cycle (‘The highest on the team! A promotion!’) finds himself sitting relatively ‘worse off’ this year among his new, elevated peer group.  He may be moving forward in absolute terms, but his enthusiasm is absolutely muted. 

Just because there isn’t a common vocabulary for assessing value or worth shouldn’t stop us from trying to create our own personal one. We can dig for goals and aspirations that fit our individual values rather than merely judging ourselves by external standards.  A congruence between our life and personal values has indeed been a proven predictor of happiness and wellbeing (See:  Self-concordance Model, Sheldon & Elliott, 1999).  Tapping into what is of intrinsic value to us, personally, we can start to audit our motives and goals around our accumulation and spending of money.  In practice, this means chasing work or other activities we find meaningful.  Equally important, we can audit what we spend the ‘fruits of our labour’ on.  My client with the Net-a-Porter habit most certainly isn’t getting value out of yet another pair of designer heels in the same way she, we discovered, treasures the bouquet of freshly cut flowers she buys every weekend at the farmer’s market. Spending money on the first leaves her feeling empty, even foolish.  The flowers, by contrast, bring her closer to her love of nature and beauty (intrinsic values). In this way, the flowers are that much more meaningful despite being the ‘cheaper’ (monetarily) purchase.  A small, but illustrative example perhaps? And one we can maybe keep in mind as we make out our Christmas lists.. . .  

Happy holidays, all!


The Psychology of Money:  An Exploration of Money, Values & Self-Worth workshop is coming soon, 9 February 2019.  For more information, see this link or email [email protected]

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