Why you should chase meaning, not money

Money makes the world go round (and this is how much of it you should be saving). We’ve probably all heard this old saying. But if you read the fine print, what money actually does is make the world go round and round, spinning in circles, and as the other saying goes, money can’t buy you happiness. Because as much as we need money to survive, if we’re aiming to live and not just to survive – money can’t really help us. So, maybe instead of money, we should be aiming for a meaningful life instead.

‘Meaningful’ means different things to different people – some define it as devoting oneself to loved ones or those less fortunate, some define it as seeking new experiences like travelling, some think in terms of spiritual growth, while others want to make a positive impact in the world. However you define it, chasing meaning rather than money is probably the key to a happier, healthier life. Don’t believe us? Consider the following:

1) No one ever feels rich enough

the meaning of life
There will always be someone with a bigger boat.

Research has shown that no matter how wealthy you are, you always feel like you need more money. For some reason, our bank accounts often seem like some perpetually hungry black hole that needs more work, more time, more energy to fill. Even very wealthy individuals fall into this trap, even though by most objective standards, they have more money than they should know what to do with. Money, for some reason, always leaves us dissatisfied and wanting more.

A meaningful life in comparison gives a sense of fulfillment. A lazy afternoon with family, a breakthrough in your new project, or even picking up a piece of litter on the street fills us with a sense of accomplishment and contentment that’s hard to replicate through money. That feeling of wellbeing is complete in and of itself, and though it doesn’t diminish our goals or ambition to achieve more, we feel satisfied in the moment.

Because we can never satisfy our desire for more money, we work ourselves to death to get more. Which is strange because…

2) There is a limit to the amount of happiness money can bring

can money make me happy?
It gets you from A-B just like any other car.

We all tend to think that the more money we have, the happier we’ll be, as if money and happiness are directly correlated. However, research shows that there is a cap to how much happiness money can bring you. At a certain point ($105 000 depending on whether you’re talking about everyday happiness or general life satisfaction), you’ll reach the maximum amount of happiness that can be correlated to money. Any more money after that doesn’t bring you anymore happiness. Apparently, that’s the point at which most of your expenses and financial matters are able to take care of themselves, so you’re not worried about financial security. You can also treat yourself and your loved ones. Additionally, making this amount requires a proportional amount of effort and time, and you should still have the energy and time to spend that money. If you chase financial wealth above this, happiness is often adversely affected.

This is all rather encouraging, as it means that we have an exact number to aim for if we want to be financially comfortable. The number is also probably lower than most of us would have thought. Finally, we know that we shouldn’t work ourselves to death to make billions that we won’t necessarily need or use. This is particularly important to remember because…

3) Money often makes us neglect our health

wealth and health
When our wealth increases, so does our propensity to indulge.

In an effort to make more moolah, we often skip meals or forget to eat. We pull all-nighters or can’t fall asleep even if we are in bed. We drink more caffeine or alcohol, cram down more fatty and sweet things, neglect exercise, smoke more, smile less, and generally live unhealthy lives.

And that’s all bad, because while most of us sacrifice our health and youth for money, later on in life, we’ll spend disproportionate amounts trying to get those back (medical-related expenses rise with age, and increase more than general inflation).

In contrast…

4) A meaningful life encompasses important things money can’t buy

money can't buy you happiness
Money can’t buy back these moments.

The love and support of family and friends, making a difference through volunteer work, a body kept youthful and healthy through good nutrition and exercise, an understanding of one’s purpose in life or one’s place in the world – these are all things that money can’t buy. Money can buy temporary happiness (who doesn’t like the feel of new shoes, or the smell of a new car), but long-term happiness has been strongly linked to happy relationships, good health, belonging to communities and having a sense of purpose.

So, while money can get us things which will give us a temporary high, the experiences that contribute to a good life in the long term aren’t found in our bank accounts. Which is also good because…

5) The legacy you leave doesn’t have to be about money

will money make me happy
In the end, it won’t be money you will wish you had more of.

We might think about leaving something for our children and grandchildren when we pass on, which is very admirable, however, money is not the only thing we can leave behind. Children often complain that what they wanted most from their parents was their time and attention, not material things. So, while we work hard to provide the best education, the finest clothes and toys and schooling, we shouldn’t forget the importance of just being around.

And on a wider scale, small acts of kindness (helping a stranger, donating to charities), making improvements to systems (even if it’s just a better way of stacking the printing paper at work), or a considered response to a friend’s questions, can all make a lasting impact, long after the incident itself. And perhaps even after we leave the world ourselves. Because money runs out, but memories will remain.

So, even as we rush to work every day, putting in extra hours to advance our careers and fill our bank accounts, it’s worth taking some time out once in awhile to evaluate if what we’re doing is contributing to a meaningful life. After all: Nobody on their deathbed has ever said “I wish I had spent more time at the office”.* *Quote attributed to Senator Paul Tsongas