How to Have All the Money In the World

A Book Review Of Sorts

Recently some of my friends were revealing their fantasies. One admitted that, in her mind, she sometimes marries a wealthy man who pays all her bills and takes her on trips around the world.

We all chimed in about how nice that would be. Then, perhaps to make ourselves feel better, the conversation turned to a belief that rich people are no happier than the poor. If anything, we all said, they are more tortured.

And soon we were all talking about various rich people we knew who were miserable.

I’m sure you’ve had a similar conversation at some point in your life.

At any rate, I find it all very interesting to think about. Does money really lead to happiness? Or does it merely lead to more anxiety? And what exactly is “rich” to begin with? To someone in a third world country who eats only three meals a week, every single person reading this blog is rich. Yet I’m guessing that 99 percent of the people who read this blog don’t think of themselves as rich. When they hear the word “rich,” they think of someone else—someone with a bigger house, more expensive car, and niftier doodads.

Buddhists tell me that the more worldly possessions you have, the more you have to worry about. This thinking goes like this: If you don’t have a house, then you have just one problem: no house. Once you own a house, then you have several problems: the fear of losing your house, the fear of someone breaking into your house, the fear of your house burning down, the fear of appliances breaking, the fear of your roof leaking, the fear of or tornado, the fear of your house not being clean enough, and the fear of frozen cheese. (More later on frozen cheese.)

In general, I believe this.

That’s why, whenever my daughter tells me that she must have a certain toy in order to be happy, my response is, “Getting what you want won’t make you happy. The only way to be happy is to not want anything.”

She often rolls her eyes when I say that.

Still, even though I believe that letting go and not wanting are the true keys to happiness, I will admit that I, too, carry around a wealth fantasy. For mine, one of my books sells millions of copies. With the windfall, I pay off my house, buy a new refrigerator, pay someone to landscape our yard, travel around the world with my daughter every summer, buy many pairs of new socks (all of mine have holes in them at the moment), and get a massage every week. I’d give away a lot of it to various people and charities, too. And, I’d also do something to leave a lasting good mark on the world. Like, for instance, I’d build and run a state-of-the-art dog shelter.

It makes me wonder: if money doesn’t buy happiness, why do so many people have get-rich fantasies?

It’s for this reason that I found Laura Vanderkam’s new book All the Money in the World such a fascinating read. In it, Vanderkam uses statistics, psychology, science and logic to turn many of our dear beliefs about money upside down. For instance, in the beginning of the book, she challenges that we all have more money than we think we do. Problem is, we’re earning it and spending it in ways that don’t necessarily lead to happiness.

Keeping up with the Joneses, wearing expensive jewelry and buying bigger and bigger houses don’t lead to happiness, she says.

What does? Experiences and giving.

I don’t think too many of you will argue with me on this. I think most of us know, at least on some level, that material items are empty. Houses, cars, designer handbags, and topiary don’t make us happy, at least not for long. Most of life’s most blissful moments arise from the simple pleasure of doing something we love with people we love. The rest of the blissful moments tend to arise when we’ve helped someone else find happiness.

And yet it’s not that simple, is it?

That’s why I asked Laura a few questions.

Q: The Buddhists tell me that money, especially the strong attachment to it, leads to unhappiness. Have you found this philosophy to be true?

Laura: I think it depends. Sometimes money causes more problems, but sometimes a lack of money can cause the exact same problem multiplier, just in reverse. Not having a car means you can’t take a better job farther away. Not taking that job means you can’t get out of debt, so money that could go to signing your kids up for camp is going to interest. I think problems are universal. The human condition is not to live in a state of bliss, but the problems that come from more money are generally preferable to those that come from less.

 Q: I was fascinated by your section about giving–and particularly that giving away money is one of the few ways that money truly leads to happiness. So let’s say I have a windfall of $3,000. Are you saying that I’ll feel happier if I give some or most of it to others than I will be if I buy a top of the line refrigerator that has an ice cube maker that actually works and a meat compartment that doesn’t freeze the cheese? (Just in case it’s not clear, my current ice maker is broken and the only cheese to be had in this house is frozen, but not on purpose).

Laura: If your refrigerator is causing you so much stress and unhappiness that it has risen to the top of the list of things you’d spend money on, then by all means, replace it if you can. Maybe you could think of it as a present to your husband. Then you’d get the psychological benefit of having spent the money on someone else. But you’d still get your fridge.

 Q: I’ve found, over the years, that I don’t always feel good about giving. For instance, when organizations put me on a spam list and beg and beg for the money until they wear me down and get me to write a check mostly just so they will go away, I don’t feel good. When people come to my door and stand and stare at me until I feel guilty and write them a check, I don’t feel good. In these situations, I feel coerced. Okay, no, I feel robbed. How does someone who values generosity find a way to give without feeling negative about it?

Laura: I agree that coerced giving doesn’t feel good. It’s important to give mindfully. So have a strategy ahead of time. Think through the causes that matter to you, and identify an organization you support where you can also volunteer. Give generously there. Then tell everyone else, honestly, that you’ve already made your charitable commitments.

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