Thursday, June 19, 2008

Can Money Buy Happiness?

When I was tagged by Abbie yesterday, I thought the hardest question was the one that asked what I would do if I had a billion dollars. I actually couldn't think about that amount of money; in fact, a million dollars is difficult for me to think about.

When I was talking about this with my husband and daughter, they were equally stumped. There were certain needs we saw within our family that were not huge, but could be relieved, and give some people peace of mind. We all agreed that we had been silently wishing we could solve those little material problems for people we loved. There was very little we could think of for ourselves. We came up with a few charities we would like to support. Then we ran out of gas. The number billion was too big.

My daughter asked if we would stay in our current house. Good question. It needs work. It's on a busy street. On the other hand, it's plenty big enough, in a safe neighborhood, and, well, it's home. There are a lot of memories here. Moving isn't the first thing that pops into my mind.

Interestingly, Arduous blogged on the subject of happiness today, and I'm sure she was working on that article long before I got tagged. Her question was why Americans are not quite as happy as people in some other nations that have somewhat less than we do materially. I won't summarize the whole thing and the great discussion that followed. One thing that came out, though, was that many commenters were willing to give up wealth for time with family, especially raising children. I found this discussion so heartening. There is a lot of real unselfish behavior out there. Along with the stories I was hearing today about people helping out in the flood zones, I basically felt very hopeful about the human race in general, and American society in particular.

Then I read this quote:

"It is sad to see that, in our highly competitive and greedy world, we have lost touch with the joy of giving. We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don't know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others."
- Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved

I realized that giving was what we really wanted to be able to do. Others who were tagged for the game seemed to feel the same way. So what do you think? Are people generally greedy and selfish, or are they for the most part willing to step outside themselves, invest in relationships, and find joy in giving?


arduous said...

The interesting thing about the billion dollar question, is that I think I personally would keep 1/100of the money, if that. The rest I would want to give, to my family, to my friends, but also to various organizations. Even the theatre company would be giving back to the community. The only thing that would tempt me to keep more money would be to found my own NGO, if I decided I'd rather do that than work with existing NGOs. I think that quote is a little harsh. Have we really lost touch with giving? When was this idealized time when people were unselfish and gave of themselves all the time? Because, personally, I think people are MORE giving now, mostly because I think globalization and ease of travel has made people see how interlinked we all are. But 75 years ago, I don't think people cared as much about people in other countries as they do now.

Joyce said...

I thoght the same thing about the quote, Arduous. That's what struck me, because I usually have very high regard for Henri Nouwen's wisdom. Right now, in my own life, I am not seeing people so negatively.

Abbie said...

Interesting point, Joyce. When I made my list of what to do with the money, I chose things that I knew I was working toward having some day, and some things that were so expensive that they were fantasies to me. I guess, as I mentall add it up, I didn't use all of the billion dollars. A neato renewable technology car might cost $100,000 at most; my mortgage is $350,000 (it's CT, cost of living is high!); putting up a barn and a greenhouse and a pool might cost $100,000 if we went all out; buying the two lots that surround our house would probably be $300,000; living how we live now without the stress of money would cost nothing. So all in all, my list of the most extravagant things I could think of to make my little family of two happy is $850,000. That's a far cry from a billion, and we're happy now without any of that stuff. It's really interesting. I wouldn't quit my job, and neither would my husband. What we do makes us happy. What would we do with the rest of the money? Probably give it to people we love, donate a lot of it, set up college funds for future children. Those future children would work on the farm, of course, and buy their own clothes and all that, because that's what I did and that's what has made me who I am. It's a scary thought to think about how my life would have been different if I had been brought up with money. The funny thing was, all my friends thought I was rich, because I had animals and land and spent all this time on the farm. I would tell them they didn't understand, that you never really leave the farm, that it's hard work, and still they were envious.
What an interesting point you have made me think about.
In terms of giving, I heard somewhere that people in the US have more money and give less than other countries. Maybe it was on Oprah. Anyway, I think giving 75 or 100 years ago was different than it is now. People would help their neighbors with the kinds of things you can't really measure in terms of money, like helping with hay or harvests, taking care of the sick, taking in orphaned relatives, sharing food and friendship. They took care of those around them, but probably not those in other countries. Back then, a trip from my little town to New Haven, where I had about a 30 minute commute to college, was an overnight trip by horse and buggy for my great-grandmother. The world has gotten smaller, and with that, I think the way people give has changed. We tend to think of giving with money, but there are other ways, probably more fulfilling ways to give.
Sorry Joyce, I think this turned into a blog post that I should have put on my own site!

Joyce said...

Abbie, I was thinking this evening of all the people in my state who are losing everything to the floods, and how glad I would be to have that billion dollars to really make a difference to those little towns and farm families. But there are thousands of folks who have driven over there to sandbag, or help people get their belongings and livestock up to high ground, and thousands who are housing friends and relatives until the water goes down. I don't think we have to look very far to find needs.
You're right. Helping people with every day things, being there to harvest when the farmer is too sick to do it, providing in-family childcare (which I did for five years so my sister could work), all those things are ways to help even if you don't have a billion. There's a nice ripple effect from it, when it becomes the norm. That's still sort of latently there in our culture, and we just need to stir it up a little.
Now I should have written another post!

Rose said...

Joyce, what a thoughtful post! I do think that Americans, for the most part are a giving people and want to help others as much as possible. At the same time, we are so goal-driven and so trapped in the "keeping up with the Jones'" mentality that I think we work so many hours that we don't have the time to help other people as much as we would like. I know when I was working I never seemed to have much free time beyond taking care of my family.

Somehow I haven't been over here the last couple days, so a few quick comments on your recent posts. My coreopsis isn't blooming yet, and the hollyhocks are just starting.

Interesting to read your answers to the tag (I did this one about a month ago). Just noticed to my surprise, that you were a DZ--so was my older daughter!

Congratulations on your 100th post! I'm not even halfway there yet:)

Joyce said...

Rose I think you're right about the long work hours cutting into giving time. When people have more flexible jobs, as they did when they worked from their homes, maybe it was easier to drop everything and help out, especially in an emergency.

Michelle said...

I agree with Rose. I know a couple who wanted a bigger house in a prestigious neighborhood to raise their five kids. The last time I talked to them, they were making TWO house payments because the other one never sold. :o( But she also has a really big heart! She'd give you anything if you simply ask.

I know quite a few folks who are incredibly generous with their time and resources. I am learning how to say, "no," as politely as possible because I've gotten myself into trouble lately by agreeing to do too many things. I love helping others, but sometimes my mouth agrees before I think, "Hey, do I even know how to do that?"

Fortunately, life has slowed down for the summer. I do wish, though, that I could help more financially, especially at church. At the moment, I must be content with what I'm capable of doing. I know that it won't be tough for me forever. This is only for a season.

Super B's Mom said...

What a wonderful post, Joyce. It really made me think about what I would do with that kind of money and my motives behind it. The first thing I would do would be pay off my parent's farm so they wouldn't have to struggle anymore.

I totally agree with the point that most of us just wish we were in a position to give. The thing though, that troubles me the most is that a lot of us are hypothetically waiting on that "million dollars" in order to give. Myself included, we often overlook that we are capable of giving with what we currently have. I struggle at times to keep the right perspective - to see myself as the servant that God wants me to be.

I truly believe that there are A LOT of wonderful generous people left in this world. I blame the mainstream media for portraying the majority of Americans as selfish ego-maniacs. That's not the America I see. I'll agree that people aren't as likely to help as generations ago. But I think it stems from the fear of being taken advantage of. The "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" mentality.

Overall, I refuse to believe that there are no good people left. That's not the world I want my son to see. If there were no gracious and generous souls left, that would mean God's work is no longer being done here. And we know that's not true!! :)

Joyce said...

Michelle, when Mike and I took the Good Sense seminar on money management at church, one of the motivations we heard from people for being wise stewards of their money was so they could be more generous, or so someone could stay home with the kids, etc. Obviously everyone needs to be making a living-not endorsing laziness at all, but, like your friends stuck with two houses, so many times folks just get sucked into a place where they can't give much.

SuperB's Mom-I'm with you, there are so many giving people, especially in a crisis. We haven't been over by the river this time, but 15 years ago when it flooded so badly, we went and sandbagged (kids went too). It was like Team America had showed up! There were Mennonite men's groups form Indiana, there were college students from every campus around, there were church women's groups there feeding the volunteers, it was just one of the most amazing things I've ever witnessed. As we drove though the little towns that were up on the bluff, every front yard had livestock tethered in it, there were combines parked in church parking lots, and Rvs everywhere to provide housing for those flooded out. Everyone was just so graciously helping. It makes me tear up just thinking about it. People are nice.

Green Bean said...

Great post, Joyce. Isn't it interesting that most of us when only spend a small fraction of the money on ourselves? Really, most of us here in the developed world have few material needs that are not met. And our "post-material" needs - feeling secure, loved, part of a community - cannot be met with money. It's time to turn our attention to helping others meet their basic needs.

Michelle said...

You mentioned being a stay-at-home Mom; I would have enjoyed that when they were little.

Usually, when I'm home, my boys want to be with friends. When I'm with friends, they call my cell constantly just for attention. ;o)

Tomorrow, though, I will take them and two friends to hear a tribute band for Aerosmith (one of my favorites).

No, money can't buy happiness.

In fact, I'm truly looking forward to spending some time with them at this concert, and it's free!

Joyce said...

GreenBean-I think if we got serious about lifting the poor, Americans could probably do a lot. By serious, I mean live a little more frugally with the idea of giving. In church circles, we call it sacrificial giving. For wealthier families that can actually be more that a 10% tithe, and they would still have enough to be pretty comfortable.

Michelle-teen-agers! You're smart to find something like the free concert to wangle some time with them. They'll remember it fondly, I'm sure.

Rob said...

Interesting to think about. With a billion dollars, after paying off all our debts, I'd probably bank enough to be able to live off the interest without any stress, and then give everything else away (our congregation is pretty strapped financially, so I'd start there). I know lots of folks who could use it. And like others, I don't think I'm terribly unusual in that . . .

Melissa said...

Great post. I like the term "sacrificial giving" - I'm reading "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" right now and Maya Angelou talks about giving within the community she grew up in, saying "although there was always was indulged on pain of sacrifice. Whatever was given...was most probably needed by the donor as much as the receiver. A fact which made the giving or receiving a rich exchange." I think this is an important idea. I've been thinking about how much it actually hurts me when I give (not much, honestly) and whether that means I'm not even close to giving enough. Probably.

Joyce said...

Melissa, I've seen some interesting statistics that say that lower middle class people are the most generous, and the speculation is that is becasue they know what it's like to scrape by, and what just a little boost can do to help someone. maybe that's why they are the most willing to give sacrificially. I'm no expert on this, I'm just someone who likes to think about how we could equal things out a bit and help our fellow human beings live with dignity. Years ago I read a great book called "Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger" by Ron Sider. It was a big influence on my thinking.