If you are like me, realizing that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be rich took some effort. A serious effort.
Originally from Northern Europe, I wasn’t alone. Back in high school, it was quite fashionable to discard the pursuit of money as outright ugly. Rejecting wealth this way was superbly ironic as all of us were well-sheltered middle-class kids in one of the wealthiest areas on the planet. We were complacently biting the hand that was feeding us. Fools that we were!
Being Affluent Is Being Kind to Yourself
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be rich for several reasons. And the first one is very physical and tangible.
As the story goes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, one day, said to Ernest Hemingway, “The rich are different from you and me,” with Hemingway, in turn, responding, “Yes, they have more money.” If only it were that easy. While this story supposedly never happened, it also overlooks one clear benefit of being rich:
The comfortable lead healthier and longer lives than the poor.
A recent study published in The Journals of Gerontology discovered that rich people over 50 live 8 to 9 years more good years than the poorest people in their countries. The study established this causal relationship by analyzing ten years of data from 25,000 people of 50 years of age and older in the United States and England.
And why is it that rich people are healthier and live longer lives? In a nutshell, rich people have less stress.
Poor People Are Less Healthy Due to Chronic Stress
Evolution has equipped us with a mechanism to deal with immediate stress. Naturally, this is extremely useful when the stressor is a sabertooth tiger or a human aggressor that threatens our life. As a result, the fight or flight response ensures our survival as a species.
This stress response process involves what is formally known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The process starts with activating the amygdala (in the brain) by an external stress factor. And it results in the release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands near the kidneys.
Cortisol triggers multiple effects in the body to support fight or flight behavior.
First, cortisol increases both heart rate and blood pressure to distribute blood to muscle groups involved in the stress response.
Second, cortisol suppresses the immune system’s activity, thus keeping resources available for demanding physical activities like fighting or running for your life.
Thirdly, It is also involved in forming so-called flashbulb memories. These are vivid memories of shocking events that we retain for a lifetime, thus helping us recall and identify sources of danger in the environment more easily.
National traumas because of hyperinflation, for example, are probably collective flashbulb memories that can cause stress reactions long beyond their occurrence.
We Still Face Stress with the Same Age-old Survival Mechanism
In today’s world, we rarely need to flee from sabertooth tigers or physically fight to survive with fellow humans. Yet, our stress response system is still in place, and we feel stress for many reasons.
We feel psychological stress when we perceive our life challenges to be higher than our current resources and capabilities. Yes, not being able to pay your bills is tremendous pressure.
But rather than a quick spike in our stress response to pressing problems, we experience today’s challenges as low-level chronic stress. Ruminating over disturbing and adverse events underpins that ongoing feeling of dread.
There is Nothing Wrong with Wanting to Be Rich Because the Chronic Stress Many Poor People Have Makes Sick and Shortens Life
This chronic stress then triggers excessively high levels of cortisol that can severely damage our health. In his acclaimed classic first published in 1994 and updated repeatedly since then, ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping,’ the neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky details out a scary list of stress-related ailments.
Chronic stress can lead to ulcers, heart disease, and cancer. And continuous pressure can even destroy cells in the hippocampus of the brain and, in consequence, cause memory loss. All this is partly because chronically high levels of cortisol damage different cells and organs in the body.
Also, stressed people are more susceptible to catching the common cold and age faster, as studies have shown.
So, the mechanism that helped our ancestors survive now can have devastating effects on our health if we are chronically stressed.
The general causality between wealth and stress comes with a lot of individual variation. Of course, rich people can also get very stressed. Being in the limelight of public life can be a stressor. Or the feeling of having to comply with external expectations. And, equally, poor people can be relaxed.
But, generally speaking, more unfortunate folks are more prone to existential stress.
And being aware of how harmful stress can be for our health and longevity, not being poor should be a priority. Hence, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be wealthy. Or is there?
Linking Wealth to Social Status is Toxic
Sociologists commonly appraise wealth in terms of class or socioeconomic status.
Researchers then measure and express social class in terms of the variables family wealth and income, level of education, and profession or career prestige.
Social class is an important cultural dimension, and in a consumerist society translates to status symbols that become part of one’s identity.
However, this connection of wealth and identity is avoidable and re-introduces unhealthy stress to an otherwise prosperous life. If people feel the need to show their financial prowess through status symbols, there will always be someone with more money, a more expensive car, and a more trendy pair of shoes.
And this is what we sensed as kids at high school: When money becomes your identity, something has gone wrong. So while we were fools at interpreting our overall life situation, we were right with our hunch about personality integrity.
When money becomes your identity, you lose your identity and surrender yourself to external pressure and stress.
Put simply: Money in itself is not a worthy goal. Money for the sake of money is a game you can’t win, and that will leave you unhappy.
But there is nothing wrong with wanting to be rich if you have a goal beyond money. Wealth is a boon when it is the expression of something else or the means for a higher purpose that involves others.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be Rich if You Have a Goal Beyond Making Money.
Don’t make money just to make money and to show your social status. Because if you do, life has a more profound irony for you in store: it re-introduces unnecessary chronic stress into your life.
Status symbols mostly define society’s mainstream understanding of success. But consumerism is a trap. It is a trap because, in this game, the vast majority of people will always be losers.
Instead, become rich to demonstrate that your way of living works and inspire others that way. Be affluent for the greater good, not to show off or needlessly differentiate yourself from others. There is no need to compare yourself to others.
So, be affluent for the greater good because your success can help many. But your failure certainly helps nobody.