In an episode of The Happiness Lab podcast, Dr. Laurie Santos interviewed psychologist Clay Cockrell who counsels the richest of the rich. They trust him with their problems, which many people would roll their eyes about, such as not being able to find a spot to park their yacht, because, “I have no judgment about that. I’m going to help you with that. Your problem is as real as someone else’s.”
Cockrell says, “The general public… don’t have a lot of sympathy because… they have a certain amount of problems that are related to money. And they have this belief that ‘If I have money, my problems will go away.’ But when they find out that there’s somebody out there that has a lot of money and they still have problems, it busts that fantasy…”
Money actually can make you happier, but not as much money as you think. Dr. Santos talked about a study that set out to determine how much money it actually takes to make people happy. The results? If a person makes less than $75,000 per year, say $20 or $40,000, then making more money will make them happier.
However, “[O]nce you’re earning an annual income of $75,000,” Santos says, “getting more doesn’t help. You don’t get less stressed or happier. Your well-being just flat lines. Even if you double or even quadruple your salary.” What makes $75,000 the magic number? It’s the amount needed to adequately meet your basic needs. In other words, people who make $75,000, $150,000 or even $250,000 a year, are no more or less happy than the other.
If you find it hard to believe that happiness flatlines once your basic needs are met, you’re not alone. Even the wealthy believe more money equals more joy, and that lie causes them shame. They feel guilty because, according to Cockrell, they think, “My life isn’t perfect, but it should be. I shouldn’t complain. I shouldn’t seek psychotherapy to help me deal with my problems because I really shouldn’t have them.”
Ultimately, the rich feel trapped. Most problems have a relatively simple solution. If you’re in a bad relationship, you can leave. If you hate your job, you can quit. But if you’re rich and miserable, you can’t just give up your bank account, can you? Cockrell says, “You’re not going to give [all your money] away. You’re too attached to it. It gives you too much freedom. So you’re trapped. [It’s] the golden handcuffs.”
The strange thing is that the wealthy believe the same lie as everyone else. They think they just need a little more. “This one guy had $500 million,” Cockrell says. “But [he] had a sense that, ‘Once I hit that billion, that’s when things really change.’ And you think, that’s crazy! You have more money than you could possibly spend. But they’re searching for happiness…”
There’s this story in the Bible that used to bother me about a wealthy person. A rich man comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor… Then come, follow me.” His response? “At this, the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” I’ve always sympathized with this guy. Jesus’ encouragement to give away everything he owned makes it seem like being rich is evil. But the fact that the rich man asked how to get to heaven, despite having boasted that he had kept all the commandments his whole life, tells us that he was seeking lasting joy and happiness but hadn’t found it yet, not even in his wealth.
When Jesus told him to give all his money away, he was trying to remove his golden handcuffs because he could see that they were binding him tightly. Jesus wasn’t trying to impose strict legalistic rules upon him. He was trying to set him free.