I just got my copy of Dollars and Sense by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler. A great read. Real Brain-Candy. The topic of how we handle money and how we make choices is a favorite topic of mine.
Does money cause stress and divorce?
Right in the introduction I find two claims: “Money is the top reason for divorce” and “Money is the number one cause of stress in Americans”. The cited sources are non-academic but they are still interesting claims. My take is this:
Money is not the problem. Money is an illusion. We live in an economy which is built on inflation and credit expansion. The amount of money in the world is ever increasing. If money is involved in stress or divorces at all I think it’s the comparison of moneyness or wealth that is the stress-maker and the divorce-maker.
We love to compare
If I have nothing to compare with, my level of wealth or level of happiness with my spouse is difficult to understand or have any opinion on. We love to compare everything, otherwise we have no idea if what we have is good or bad. A person living 300 years ago was not less happy than we are because she didn’t have wi-fi, drive a fancy car or have the option to fly to another country for vacation. That person’s level of satisfaction came from comparing herself with her peer group.
People living on the streets are not incapable of happiness because of their lack of money or material goods. They also find ways to become accustomed to their situation. Happiness, being continent or freedom from stress has little to do with our wealth. In fact, the amount of money we have money has little to do with our sense of wealth. “You learn to spend what’s in your pocket” is a favorite quote from the movie Margin Call. More money leads to higher costs and you still end up just making ends meet at the end of each month.
We can deal with changes but the thought of change is harder
What’s more likely to cause stress is the combination of two things;
- not being able to achieve a standard we crave and
- the prospect of downward change from the standard we’ve grown accustomed to, i.e. a loss.
Actual change, i.e. when change occurs, is not as stressful. In the heat of the moment we either fight the change or change together with it. When thrust into battle, many I speak with describe a certain level of calm. We seem to be designed to handle changes. We might not like it, but we are quite capable of handling change. Added adrenaline and other natural internal chemicals help.
A lower standard or a loss results in a season of painful adaption but when the turmoil is over, we are capable of finding happiness there too. Material standards or money is not the governor of our state of mind. Like Robert Downey Jr said: having money only solves one problem: That is, not having money. All other problems remain.
A vast majority of those who claim to be stressed have enough money to survive. The stress is caused by the fear of having to lower ones standards or not increase standards at the same pace as one’s peers (which is a relative loss).
Losing what you have or not getting what you want – which is worse
We set high standards to help us improve but get stressed when these standards prove to be too high.
The stress caused from not “keeping up with the Joneses” can of course reflect on one’s relationship. If frames of reference differ within the couple, one has a differing standard than the other, there will be a tension which eventually causes friction. It has nothing to do with the money itself. This is caused by expectations and fears, which are borne in comparison.
The couple in question could get all the money they ask for. Soon enough (after 3-6 months) they will have become accustomed to this new level of wealth and new standards will be established. With this might come new fears of the risk that they could “lose it all”. “Fear of loss, the theory of loss-aversion, is one of the most powerful contributions from psychology to financial theory” (Daniel Kahneman).
So, we love to compare. We fear losses and we design expectations that are slightly above our reach. How we define a loss and what we should aspire for comes from what we can see and are aware of. What we can compare our situation with.
Increased frame of reference from globalization
Living in a global world can be a wonderful thing. We are made aware of amazing people, nature, wealth, beauty etc. Things, people and status that can be used for comparison. Stuff previous generations had no ability to compare themselves with. Also, we are made aware of horrible things going on in the world. Things that can fuel our fears if we let them.
“Ignorance is bliss” as the famous saying goes. One solution for more happiness, less stress and better relationships could be to cut off excess information and only focus on one’s local environment. Comparing one’s situation to the opportunities in one’s available surrounding. We seem to be designed for this.
However, maybe instead of cutting off the outside world, we can find strategies to cope with a world full of endless opportunities without losing our minds, our cool and our spouse? Maybe we can find more uplifting things to compare our situation with.
Abstract concepts are difficult to compare
There is one major issue that makes global comparison a problem: Tangibility vs abstractions. Here are two examples:
- Our mind in a default state is rigged to understand tangible and concrete material things better than abstract concepts. We therefore compare material goods because it’s easier to do.
- Our mind in a default state craves immediate feedback and has a hard time understanding delayed feedback. We therefore look for activities that provide instant gratification rather than pursuing long term goals with delayed rewards.
If we are to find happiness in a global setting, we will do well if we train our minds to grasp abstract concepts such as love, unselfishness, quietness etc. Our “hearts” may be built for this but our mind in a default state is not.
But abstract things are difficult to measure so how do we compare? Exactly! If we focus on abstract concepts just mentioned, there is no true way to compare our own abstract level of love and unselfishness with anyone else than ourselves. In fact, when working in risk management at a bank I came to understand that the more precise I could measure a certain risk aspect, the less important it was. Risk has to be understood rather than measured (ok, measuring is important too but you get the point).
Since we love to compare, we will always be drawn to do so but maybe we can train our minds to focus on more abstract things that are more difficult to compare rather than tangible or material things. What if we can compare ourselves with ourselves (this is difficult since we are surprisingly abstract and complex compared to others)? What if we can remind ourselves of our long term goals and make them more tangible in the present. What if we learn how to “not sweat the small stuff” even though that’s the only thing we see, can relate to and is screaming for our immediate attention?
Long term satisfaction is quite similar to saving money and the concept of compound interest. Small simple things done continuously. They don’t only add up, they grow, interest upon interest. Good unselfish deeds compound and change our nature. Maybe we need to focus less on what we have/don’t have and more on what we can give.
In conclusion, what if we could be as cool, calm, collected, happy and successful as that person we envy on facebook and Instragram… Oups…
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- Posted by Anders Stenkrona
- On December 11, 2017
- 0 Comments