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

Living–and working–with the counting curse.

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

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]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.