4 Reasons We're Still Obsessed With Money, And 1 Loud Call To Quit It

Living—and working—with the counting curse.

Research shows that money stops buying happiness once your earnings surpass $50,000 to $70,000 a year—so why does cash still rule nearly everything?

It's in the quirky way we relate to money's countability, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton explains to Barking Up The Wrong Tree. We counted five reasons why.

1: The what-we-know and what-we-do disconnect

We are what we repeatedly do—yet funnily enough, we don't repeatedly do the things we know are good for us. Echoing the work of behavioral economists Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman, Norton observes the everyday disconnect between our ideals and our actions:

  • "I know I should exercise and I don't," he says. "I know I should eat healthy and I don't. I know I should spend time with my kids and I don't. I know that, yes, money isn't going to make me happy and I still keep trying to make money."

2: We need to know we're getting better

People need signals to know if they're doing well—and money is one of the most immediate ways.

  • "One of the things that we want to feel about ourselves is that we're getting better over time," he says. "My life is getting better or I'm making progress or I'm growing or learning. It would stink if you felt every year was worse than the year before."

The need to mark progress is a facet of human nature that motivates the workplace—which is why we're looking for small wins in our working lives.

3: Important things are hard to measure

The feedback loop on quantitative things like money is much more obvious than qualitative things like the relationships you have with your family. Like Clay Christensen cautioned, the investment you make in your children, naturally, takes years to mature—and doesn't fit into metrics.

  • "'Am I a better dad than I was last year?' Norton asks. "Well, there’s no objective scale where I can look back and someone says, 'Last year you were a 71 dad. This year, you’re a 74 dad.'"

4: We can't help but measure ourselves by money

As we learned from Leslie Perlow, workaholics aren't addicted to the work that they do; they're addicted to the validation they get from the success.

In a similar vein, Norton argues that money gives us a convincing, validating signal that we're doing well:

  • "We're just unable to correct for it because the other things that are important are hard to count and counting is great," he says. "It feels like math and math feels like science and we feel like we're better off because there's a confidence that I'm doing better, and it also works better with other people: 'Am I better off than you? I don’t know, but if I have a bigger house than you, I beat you.'"

5: So stop counting

Norton calls this measuring ourselves by the metric of money the curse of counting things—which is how people land themselves in soul-sucking career tracks.

Instead, Norton says, we need to reorient our perspective to money and time:

  • "Knock it off," he says. "Knock off counting how much money you have and start thinking about what you’re doing with it. What you’re doing with your money and time is a lot more important than how much money and time you have."

Which gives us another way to understand why the happiest people have the hardest jobs.

Bottom Line: When we break the counting curse, we can do the work we're meant to do.

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Hat tip: 99u

[Image: Flickr user Aaron Patterson]

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  • Slamanderson

    Nice provocative post, but I would have disagree with any reasoning that looks to discourage the accumulation of money and resources for the sake of happiness or wellbeing.  Money buys time and freedom.  The accumulation of wealth opens the doors to limitless opportunities, and allows one to dictate their own destiny and pursue their own passions and projects.  To suggest otherwise is just promoting socialist fantasy.

    Then again, some people will do anything to rationalize their need to work for the man and be told what to do all their lives.

    See you by the pool.

  • johnchavens

    First off, thank you, Drake for all your great posts. Timely, savvy and edifying. Great combination.

    Secondly, I think we do have to start counting things that normally aren't quantified or else money will never lose its power. For instance, being a Dad. What if a group of Dads got together, came up with ideas (in conjunction with their partners/kids) that represented the steps to being a "good Dad?" Maybe this means other Dads could pool resources and share babysitters when a Dad needs time alone with a child, etc. more importantly, what if Dads could go to their Managers and ask to always leave in time to get home for dinner? They could come in earlier to work to make up the difference. If they measured their mood/well being before and after this kind if "dinner pilot" I guarantee their intrinsic happiness levels would rise, and they'd be more loyal workers as well. It's these kind of measures we also need to put in place so people can have the ability to fight against the money argument.