My mother once introduced me to a friend as “the happiest man in the world.” I wouldn’t dispute this claim. Do I make a lot of money? Well, my household is in the same tax bracket as a seasoned teacher. I’m a writer, working from my home office that also contains my cat’s litter box and our family’s canned food pantry. Still, I consider myself immensely rich—even if I’m not wealthy. Why? Simply because, despite a lack of a college degree or formal education in my field, I mostly get to do what I want to do all day. (In fact, I quit a more acclaimed position as a Marketing Specialist just so I could do more of what I enjoy—writing.) I’m married to the love of my life and we have a hilariously inquisitive 2-year-old son. I wouldn’t change a thing. (Ok, maybe the litter box could stand to be somewhere else.)
What is wealth or richness? These terms vary depending on to whom they are referring. To one person, someone rich has a six-figure income. To someone else, six figures are just the beginning. Putting the actual income level aside, what even makes this income appealing? Surely, a briefcase full of cash makes for a decent footrest under your desk, but most would say that the appeal of abundant monetary wealth is the afforded luxury of freedom—of time, actions, resources. They can do whatever they desire.
Then there is the person that typically makes less than six figures—the office clerk, the teacher, the janitor, the bus driver, the grocery store attendant. Do they have the same desire for freedom as the CEO, the doctor, or lawyer? Undoubtedly.
Now, let us distill why freedom equals happiness. More often than not, this freedom-thus-happiness comes with a steep cost. For some, many weeks going over evidence and preparing their client for a court case may result in some of that freedom-thus-happiness. For others, bathing an elderly person one morning can result in a bit of that freedom-thus-happiness.
What if that person bathing the elderly felt indeed contented in their pursuit of freedom-thus-happiness, though the defense attorney utterly hated every moment of their job? What if the fast-food worker sang while cooking food in the back of a hot kitchen while the CEO stared at the ceiling fan all night, wondering what kind of people her children would grow up to be? What is the cost of affluence if someone is routinely required to slowly and systematically crush their own soul in the process?
The measure of a rich person should not be the digits on their bank statement, but the measure of the void between longing and contentment. By this definition, an elementary school teacher who must purchase her own school supplies may live a life of existential opulence while the gold-cufflinked stockbroker may indeed be spiritually destitute and emotionally famished.
More often than not, the pursuit of wealth is far more costly and far less gratifying than the pursuit of contentment.
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. … Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.” – Seneca