July 28, 2017

Money, money, money

Money makes the world go round.’ So sang Liza Minelli in the 1970s hit Cabaret. When we get down to it, many of us measure our life, our happiness and even our future prospects by our wealth. Why is money so important to us?

‘Money makes the world go round.’ So sang Liza Minelli in the 1970s hit Cabaret. I can vividly remember my father watching this with me and persuading me of the truth behind the song — that money really does make the world go round — it’s the reason why many of us do what we do.

The recent UK general election proved Liza right. As with most elections, much of the rhetoric surrounding the vote was focused on Britain’s economic prospects, more specifically, which party would minimise the potential economic impact of Brexit. With the oft-repeated ‘Strong and stable government’, Theresa’s team pitched themselves as the party of economic competence who could be trusted to steer Britain through the choppy economic waters ahead. Actually, the appeal to personal wealth was not confined to the right. On the day of the election, I was struck by a Facebook post that simply stated, ‘If you earn less than £70,000, you’ll be better off under Labour.’ Across the political spectrum, parties base much of their political appeal on naked financial self-interest.

This is part of a wider trend: our obsession with economic growth. Each quarter, our headlines are dominated by the latest GDP growth figures, as economists speculate on potential dark clouds on the horizon. This focus on economics prevents us from engaging with important policy questions. We don’t seriously wrestle with whether we should sell arms to Saudi Arabia, because our position as the world’s second-largest arms trader [1] is ‘good for the economy’. We’re all against sweatshop conditions and low wages in developing economies and yet, very few of us are willing to give up the low price of high street fashion for a more expensive ethical clothing brand.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we should ignore questions of personal finance. Many of us have dependents who rely on us — people we have a duty to support — and regardless of your circumstances, earning money is not wrong — it’s absolutely essential for life.

But I wonder if this economic focus reveals us as we really are: materialists. When we get down to it, many of us measure our life, our happiness and even our future prospects by our wealth. We may tell our children, ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ or ‘there are more important aspects to a job than how much you’re paid’, but in reality, our headlines and our individual choices reveal a different underlying belief.

Why is money so important to us? Apart from the fact that we need it to live, there are some more subtle reasons it is so central to our lives. For some of us, how much money we have is a yardstick of success, a way of measuring how much we’ve achieved in life. Despite having more than we need, we continue to strive after more. Money is addictive — the more you have, the more you want. You achieve a certain level of wealth, but you can still find people to compare with, who have more than you. This comparison with others spurs us on to work harder, so we can outpace our peers, or afford our latest lust.

But does money really buy our happiness? Does it really deliver what it promises? I grew up in a wealthy family, living in a large house surrounded by an expansive garden. I attended a private school and we went on expensive exotic holidays. And yet, my family was highly dysfunctional, we fought, argued and it was far from a blissful experience. I became convinced that money was far from a guarantor of happiness and wellbeing. Contemporary social science agrees. Economists have identified a ‘bliss point’ where additional income does not actually bring substantially more happiness [2]. The level of household income required to be happy varies according to different studies, but even the most ambitious put it at the equivalent of a relatively modest £50,000 per year [3].

And yet many of us are working hard, trying to earn far more than this. And even when we reach those lofty heights, we continue to pursue more, believing that if we can just have that bit more, we will finally find the happiness we crave.

The trouble is, we look to wealth to provide more than it should. We look for it to define us, to give us a sense of accomplishment and, ultimately, to satisfy us. We ascribe more meaning and satisfaction to it than it can deliver. In fact, we treat it as if it were God. We’re expecting it to be all-powerful, to help us in times of need and to keep us safe from all harm. When we’re happy it’s because we think money (or material things) have fulfilled our needs, and if we’re unhappy we think it’s because we need more. But money simply can’t live up to that. The only thing that could satisfy us in the way that we look to money is God. I now earn much less than my parents did, yet I have found something that satisfies more deeply than all the gadgets and exotic holidays ever could.

I’ve realised that I don’t need to chase money to satisfy myself, to afford the latest new thing, because I’ve found the very thing that truly satisfies me — an eternal relationship with my ultimate creator, our Father in heaven who loves us. This is not unique to me. Christians throughout the ages have displayed deep peace and contentment even whilst living in relative poverty. Languishing in a Roman prison, St Paul claimed, ‘I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.’ [4]

The knowledge of God’s love was enough to sustain Paul in the hardest of circumstances. So we have a choice: will we trust money or God to provide for us and to satisfy us? What will you do? Will you keep trying something that we know doesn’t work, or risk trusting Jesus with his way of achieving happiness?

[1] Jon Stone, ‘Britain is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world’, Independent (5 September 2016)
[2] Belinda Luscombe, ‘Do we Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?’, Time Magazine (6 September 2010)
[3] Ibid
[4] Philippians 4:12 (NLT)

Jeremy Moses

Jeremy Moses
Jeremy is an Italian, Swiss, Indian, Iraqi, Jewish Londoner who has worked for multi-nationals and startups, and now helps lead a church.

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