"Money Doesn't Make One Happy:" Examining Christian Folk Wisdom on the Subject of Wealth

Casual conversation is replete with folk wisdom on the subject of money. One becomes accustomed to hearing such remarks as, “Oh, I would never want to be rich.” This is usually followed by some sort of qualifier (“I just want to be comfortable”), or a platitude (“Money doesn’t make one happy, you know”), or the unimaginative, “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a lot of money,” and so on. These, and other like phrases, comprise the sort of commonplace moralizing to which, through familiarity, one tends to become inured, and they are often reciprocated by their hearers with an approving nod, as if the speaker had just uttered a trivial truth, such as, “I just want to be a good person.”

Were such phrases uttered by someone who was not already wealthy, however, it would be much easier to regard them seriously; for phrases of this sort, are, of course, the sorts of things only wealthy people say. Indeed, it is only in rare cases that our American wealth-eschewer does not at that very moment have (at least) a computer worth $500 to $1,000, otherwise known as a “smart” phone, on his person, own a vehicle, a home, a laptop or tablet, have access to air-conditioning, plumbing, running (drinkable) water, electricity, internet, cable television, a formal education, and a source of regular income.[1]

That a person engaged in such a prodigious standard of living can, without experiencing the slightest tinge of cognitive dissonance, blatantly denigrate the possession of wealth is, perhaps, evidence for just how exceptional the American economy is. Such statements reinforce the fact that, beyond the attainment of those necessities essential to survival, “comfort,” like wealth, is a relative state of affairs. The state “being comfortable” means one thing to (say) a Papuan and, to the average American, another thing entirely. In the case of the latter, it usually means something that, both historically and globally, amounts to a standard of living beyond even that of ancient kings; for, despite being unimaginably affluent,[2] there was no amount of gold that could have afforded Solomon, for example, the availability of electricity or the medical benefits of penicillin–advances that, in America, even the relatively poor take for granted. The standard of living most people in the history of the world would have considered “upper-class” is far exceeded by that which contemporary Americans now consider merely “comfortable.” But find me the man whose family is starving, or who is of financial necessity engaged in mundane or dangerous or backbreaking work, or the couple who is forced, for financial reasons, to allow their children to be raised by others, who will yet utter with a straight face such a phrase as, “money doesn’t make one happy,” and you will have discovered one who is either in denial of his predicament or does not understand happiness.

The meaning of “Money doesn’t make one happy”

Were one to ask ten people what the word “comfortable” or “happiness” means, or to define what (to them) constitutes “a lot” of money, however, one is likely receive at least eleven different answers. (This is, after all, not a subject many of us have thought critically about.) The answers produced will inevitably be products of one’s upbringing, social context, and values. Thus, as in any discussion, and especially one at whose center are much-equivocated terms, if we are to avoid speaking in circles, we must clarify at the outset what we mean. Rather than attempt to undergo a lengthy exposition of the various meanings of  “happiness,” or to analyze the etymology, however, I shall simply say what I think most people intend by it. In the context of an assertion like “money doesn’t make one happy,” people cannot mean by this something that is obviously untrue, such as, “money can’t buy comfort” or “money can’t buy pleasure.” Rather, they seem to mean something akin to the following: “no amount of money can provide a holistic sense of satisfaction in life.” This is surely a claim to which only a thoroughgoing hedonist might object.[3] The rest of us are compelled to agree, else profound dissatisfaction would be absent among those with sufficient wealth (whatever that is); yet, there is clearly no shortage of those who are both rich and deeply unhappy. This is because inveterate unhappiness of the kind produced by meaninglessness often stems from becoming discontented with pleasure, rather than from the regular experience of pain.[4] Summarizing Augustine’s thoughts on the matter, Nicholas Wolerstorff notes–correctly, in my view–that, “Only enjoyment of God is worthy of desire for its own sake. If enjoyment of some earthly thing comes your way, praise God for it; but do not desire it, do not seek it for its own sake. That way lies unhappiness.”[5] Therefore, let us agree that material wealth cannot ultimately satisfy.

If this is indeed what people mean by the phrase, “Money doesn’t make one happy,” it is odd that they should utter it in the contexts they usually do; namely, as a reason for why they do not–or would not want to–make more money or to build wealth. This is made all the more strange by the fact the man who, in conversation, shuns building wealth is often the very same man who sends letters to friends and family asking for donations to fund his short-term missions trip, complains nightly to his wife that he is underappreciated and underpaid, prays that he might be granted a pay raise, and could not conceive of turning down a promotion, so long as it came with greater pay. He wants desperately to be financially prosperous, but not too much. By day, he rolls his eyes at lottery winners and “trust fund babies;” by night, he clips coupons and enters online raffle drawings. He wants to be handsomely rewarded, but not if it requires being too uncomfortable for too long.

The Wealth Paradox

It is here we encounter the existential paradox with which some Christians appear to struggle: “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), yet money is also clearly indispensible to a society and a means to many good things; it is a thing of which to be wary, yet cannot be escaped. Since it cannot be escaped entirely, apart from a retreat into monasticism, the solution some have adopted is to treat as an extravagance any material wealth beyond being merely “comfortable.” Never mind that, if we are to use our Lord as the paradigm, even this is an extravagance. Indeed, I have been somewhat haunted by C.S. Lewis’ thought on the question of how much we should give:

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusement, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our giving does not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say it is too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our commitment to giving excludes them.[6]

I say “haunted” because my suspicion is that Lewis has said something right and difficult about the attitude we ought to cultivate with respect to our lifestyle and our giving.

In any case, the reason for this apparent paradox–acknowledging the dangers of money while recognizing its necessity–is, it seems to me, that many Christians tacitly assume that the only reason a person would work long and hard to create significant wealth is to spend it on oneself. If not for this assumption, comments like, “I would never want to be rich,” become virtually unintelligible, especially in view of the ironic fact that most of us will of necessity spend more waking hours attempting to earn money than we will spend doing anything else.

Likely, however, what people really mean by this is not that they do not want to become wealthier than they are, but that they either do not want to do what they believe is necessary to create greater wealth, or else they don’t want to become like a certain kind of person that they associate with affluence (i.e., the “rich man” archetype; cf. Luke 16:19-31). Regarding this latter concern, Lewis cautions that:

One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.[7]

We would indeed do well to remember that God is ultimately the source of all good things, denouncing an unhealthy emotional attachment to our possessions and any means requiring the oppression of others to obtain them. But why think that working to create significant wealth is necessarily only a selfish endeavor, especially insofar as it allows one in the long run to spend their time in the pursuit of more worthwhile activities than earning a paycheck? On the contrary, why not deliberately delay one’s own gratification, not only for the sake of one’s own family’s future (which is a good in itself; see I Tim. 5:8), but for the sake of others? Correctly understood, and properly ordered among our values–our “loves,” if you will[8]–there need be no existential crisis with respect to creating wealth. Like a hammer, money is but a tool, and it is one’s character that will influence whether it is used for good or for ill: it can either buy slaves or fund an orphanage. As such, it is a useful servant, but a diabolical master.[9]

Wealth and Living Modestly

So long as it means living below one’s means in a manner devoid of vanity, living a modest lifestyle is commendable. But why assume that one must remain poor (relatively speaking) in order to live modestly? Need one assume that wanting to increase one’s wealth is indicative of disordered desires? If one wants to live on only $25,000 per year[10], but has the means to create much greater wealth (all other things being equal), why not continue to live on $25,000 per year and, if one so chooses, give the rest away?[11]

Thought of in this way, it becomes clear that at the root of pious statements, such as, “I would never want to be rich,” is sometimes a kind of selfishness. To the extent that our own needs are met, we tend not to entertain thoughts of making ourselves uncomfortable in the short term for the benefit of others in the long term. Indeed, many people refuse to delay their gratification even for their own future well-being,[12] and it is surprising that some seem to think it an exercise in humility to deliberately work for little pay, while simultaneously accruing debt to buy things they cannot afford.[13]

The reason people say they need to “pray about” whether to give to meet a certain need or fund a worthwhile cause is not because there is uncertainty about the merit of the need–this is usually obvious–but because they lack the resources to assent without reservation; for a drowning man is ill-equipped to save another. There is often little material difference between someone’s needing to “pray about” whether to give to X and someone’s needing to “consider” giving to X. As such, this is often just a way of responding that intends to avoid challenge by one’s interlocutor; for who would dare suggest that one not pray about something?[14] In it’s worst form, much as we often take home leftover food, knowing we will probably just toss it out later, responding this way is sometimes just a passive way of saying “no.” But we should caution ourselves against using God as a screen for our own dearth of confidence in asserting ourselves.

Some have justified deliberately remaining financially hand-to-mouth because of the extent of their giving to others, and of all the reasons to deliberately struggle financially, this is certainly the most laudable. Did not the widow who gave her only two coins effectively give more than even the rich?[15] As in many other cases, Jesus clearly sought to point out that the condition of the widow’s heart, combined with her obedience, was of more spiritual worth than the large gifts of the wealthy–presumably, not because there is something inherently holy about small gifts, but because there is something holy in obedience when obedience comes at significant cost to the giver.

It would be a mistake, however, to cite this passage as evidence that Jesus intended to praise the widow’s being poor. This is, in part, because there are throughout the Bible numerous commands to defend,[16] do justice to,[17] and be generous towards the poor,[18] as well as praises for God’s doing such things–presumably because being poor is something to be remedied, rather than sought, and because justice requires that we not neglect those in need.

The Distinction Between Jobs and Work

A friend of mine recently mentioned to a Christian acquaintance that he was actively pursuing financial independence in order to be able to focus on interests other than his job. His interlocutor responded by asking, “You know [Saint] Paul was a tentmaker, right?” This was as if to say, “if such a venerable figure as Paul remained employed in the course of his apostolic mission, who are you to seek to escape your job?” In addition to the stark assumption that my friend’s job was a good one, and therefore not worth leaving, there is at least one more unjustified assumption underlying this response–that the desire to escape one’s job is equivalent to the desire to escape work in general.

Because we colloquially refer to our jobs as our “work,” it is understandable that the distinction between the categories of “job” and “work,” of which jobs are subset, has become blurred. There are clearly many endeavors that involve work, however, even arduous work, which would not constitute a job[19]–raising children being but one obvious example. Thus, while the desire to avoid work in favor of unadulterated leisure is rightly to be eschewed, it is nevertheless incorrect to equate the attempt to free oneself financially from one’s job with the attempt to free oneself from the responsibility of work in general.[20]

Implicit in such remarks is the assumption that to bend towards the ascetic is in some way to bend towards holiness. After all, if we desire to follow Jesus, are not we to heed the words of our Lord?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?[21]

Indeed we must. And it is on a certain understanding of this and other similar biblical passages[22] that the foundations of Christian monasticism were built; for monasticism is an attempt, among other things, to live consistently with Christ’s call to self-denial. This abnegation has historically involved the rejection of those worldly pleasures or drives that comprise ordinary human life in favor of abstinence, temperance, austerity, and, in its extreme forms, deliberately inflicting pain on oneself in the form of flagellation, sleep deprivation, or exposure to extreme temperatures. Hence, falling somewhere on the spectrum from complete self-indulgence to self-harm, asceticism (from the Greek “askesis”) tends to be a matter of degree, and there are many attempts at asceticism that fall short of something as all-encompassing as monasticism.[23]

In my own case, there was something in this call to self-denial that, even as child, I felt compelled to observe. Though no one had taught me to do so, I recall that, for some time, as our family would pray before each meal, I would quietly hold my breath for the duration of the prayer, believing that, in virtue of God’s holiness, I did not deserve even to breathe in His presence. As one might suspect, I had cause to seriously question the feasibility of this practice if, on a given night, my father’s thankfulness happened to be particularly long-winded.

At some point–I do not remember when–I came to realize that this practice, while perhaps admirable in its attempt at reverence, was at least unnecessary. The same could be said for asceticism writ large. Denying oneself food for a time, in recognition of the fact that “man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4) is good; forever denying oneself food–or air–is deadly. Retreating periodically into solitude to pray is an indispensible discipline; withdrawing permanently from society is to relinquish our responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission.[24] Likewise, remaining ever-vigilant that our desires for comfort, leisure, or resources do not ascend in our hearts to the status of  “loves”–of ends in themselves–we should also caution ourselves against using this concern as an excuse to remain complacent. Becoming wealthy does not guarantee happiness,[25] but neither does being poor.[26] Being wealthy does not entail being materialistic, nor does being poor entail being righteous. We might be called to endure suffering on behalf of Christ. To do so with the right attitude is virtuous. But to inflict suffering on ourselves, or our families, either directly or indirectly, is to be foolish–or worse. While I do not intend to suggest that building wealth or pursuing financial independence is a moral obligation, good stewardship of the opportunities and resources afforded us is. As Solomon reminds us:

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
    consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
    officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
    and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
    When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
    and want like an armed man.[27]

Insofar as one has the means to do so, I submit that we would do well to consider the ways in which our temporary self-denial might be applied, not only for our own gain, but to the very great benefit of others.

[1] See https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/understanding-poverty-the-united-states-surprising-facts-about

[2] See I Kings 10:14

[3] And even he might only grant that, holistic satisfaction being illusory, the pursuit of pleasure is just the closest one can come to genuine joy.

[4] Conversely, the regular experience of pain need not produce inveterate unhappiness.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 144. See also Proverbs 21:17.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996). See also Luke 21:1-4.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity,(1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 213-214.

[8] In You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), James K. Smith makes a compelling case for the fact that humans are properly understood as beings that love, rather than merely beings that think.

[9] See Matthew 6:24

[10] The weighted average poverty threshold for the United States in 2018 for a family of four with two children was $25,465. See https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html

[11] For now, I set aside those situations in which parents force their children to go without for the sake of their own ideals.

[12] See https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/21/consumer-debt-hits-4-trillion.html

[13] For example, encountering a recent college graduate who is debt-free is now an anomaly. See https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/02/25/student-loan-debt-statistics-2019/#5493a32c133f

[14] Cf. 1 Thess. 5:16-18

[15] See Luke 21:1-4

[16] See Jeremiah 5:28, Proverbs 31:8-9

[17] Leviticus 19:15, Ezekiel 22:29, Jeremiah 5:28; 22:3, Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 140:12

[18] For example, see Deuteronomy 15:11, Isaiah 58:10, Proverbs 14:31; 19:17; 22:9, , Matthew 5:42, Acts 20:35

[19] Whereby I mean a situation in which one trades time employing a skill for a wage.

[20] An additional problem with this reasoning is that it could be employed against any number of self-evident goods. Suppose one desired to avoid a hitting an iceberg while on a cruise ship. Another might as well respond with “You know Paul was shipwrecked, right?”

[21] Matthew 16:24-26

[22] Cf. 1 Pet. 2:11; 1 Cor. 9:27

[23] For example, Christians are commanded to engage in regular, temporary acts of asceticism in the form of fasting, abstinence, etc. See, for example, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 7:5.

[24] Matthew 28:16-20

[25] Cf. Ecclesiastes

[26] Cf. Proverbs 10:15; 14:20

[27] See Proverbs 6:6-11

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