Man’s Search for Money/Man’s Search for Meaning

“See, money doesn’t just buy you a better life — better food, better cars, better p***y — it also makes you a better person. You can give generously to the church, or political party of your choice. Save the f****n’ spotted owl with money.” Jordan Belfort in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street

“Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” Viktor Frankl, Holocaust Survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.


Toronto-based researcher, Rhia Catapano, and colleagues recently investigated whether “meaning buys you happiness”. In a series of studies, which used data from over 500,000 individuals worldwide, the researchers explored the links between happiness, money and meaning. The results? Having a sense of meaning or purpose is vitally important for the contentment of those on low incomes or low in socio-economic status. And for the rich? Meaning was far less important for a happy life.


Man’s Search for Meaning

For thousands of years wise people have extolled the virtues of a Meaningful Life. A meaningful life is hard to define but might be loosely described as one in which your day-to-day existence exists in service of a larger or longer-term goal or value. Such values might include family, the environment, or religion.

Psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl (quoted above), spent four unspeakably brutal years in Nazi concentration camps. His father, wife and unborn child died in these camps. Frankl attributed his survival to the fact that he found a meaning from his ordeals: to survive and share his insights into the human condition with the world. He subsequently founded the therapeutic school of logotherapy which places meaning in the central position of vital human drives.

How to make a life of pain worth living? Find meaning, and existence once again becomes bearable.

So, a meaningful life makes existence easier for the poor and destitute. Why then, as Rhia and friends found, might meaning be less important for the wealthy for a happy life?

Man’s Search for Money

In the 1960’s Board Game company Milton Bradley rereleased the Game of Life. Unlike the earliest version of the game, released 100 years prior, the new game did not have a highly moral message. The purpose of the game was to outscore (out earn) all opponents and live in “Millionaire Acres”.  Losing meant ending the game in the “Poor Farm”.

The default purpose of all our modern lives is similar to the purpose of Milton Bradley’s Game of Life. The default value systems of our society are meritocratic and capitalist. If we don’t think about who we are, or where we are heading, we are all heading towards Millionaire Acres or the Poor Farm (or some rank-based position in between).

Rich and successful people are winning the game of life and are happy because of it. And, as the Wolf of Wall Street helpfully points out, money is redeemable for any of the other sources of meaning we might have. With money you can save an owl, or save the world by getting your pet politician elected. In this way, money can make you a better person in the eyes of all around you.

Money gives life meaning. Make more than your friends and family and you’re winning the game of life, you’re having a more meaningful life.

Meaning, Money and Mental Health

I often write about the mental health problems that I encounter professionally from the standpoint of “First World Problems”. I approach psychological issues in this way not to denigrate ourselves as westerners, or for that matter as humans. On the contrary, I wish to empathically highlight the supreme tragedy of the brainy ape, homo sapiens, who having slain all external enemies turns his weapons upon himself.

Even when this brainy ape has plenty to eat and a solid roof over its head, it suffers. Even when insured from the disasters of the future, even then, it suffers.

It suffers because not everyone can win the Game of Life. There will always be more room at the Poor Farm than on Millionaire Acres. If money is your meaning, and you aren’t making much money, you’re left with suffering alone.

Money can buy happiness while we are winning the game of life, and maybe we’ll be winning forever!

But chances are, we will find ourselves in a losing position one day. And when that day comes, we will either have a sense of meaning which is not linked to money, or we will have gone all-in on the game of life.

And if we have, suffering will be our only companion.

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