Money or the Box? How money alienates you from the things that matter, and what to do about it.

A few years ago a client of mine gave me a copy of a book called The High Price of Materialism. It’s written by a psychologist called Tim Kasser, and he spent many years studying the effects of “materialism” [money + stuff] on people and their wellbeing. His conclusion:

A strong focus on materialistic pursuits not only distracts people from experiences conducive to psychological growth and health, but signals a fundamental alienation from what is truly meaningful.

In plain language, this means that the more attached and/or obsessed we are with money and buying and owning stuff, the more we stray from the things that matter.

Drawing on a decade’s worth of empirical data, Kasser shows that people whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material possessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy – regardless of age, income, or culture.

As our materialistic values go up, our pro-social values go down. As our materialistic values go up, our pro-nature and the environment values go down. As our materialistic values go up, our self-esteem becomes more and more contingent on the money we earn, and the stuff we own.

And [get this], Tim Kasser also found that the more people are exposed to the media, the more they espouse materialistic values. That’s because every day we are bombarded with messages from politicians and economists about the importance of consumer spending and growth. Consumerism drives you and me to earn more and own more stuff, and [for the most part] it dominates our lives. Brad Pitt said it all in The Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you”.

There is a way out of this paper bag, and it’s quite simple really. Look inside yourself. Look inside and do a little digging around until your discover your intrinsic values. Your intrinsic values are the things that motivate and inspire and feed you because that’s who you are, as a human being. Not because of the promise of an extrinsic reward.

And as you look inside yourself, here’s the million dollar question to hold close to your heart: “What really motivates me?” Am I really motivated by rewards and praise? By money? By rank? By constant affirmation? Or am I really motivated by a deeper, more personal sense of accomplishment? By doing stuff that is an expression of who I am? By knowing that what I do matters?

Motivation is personal and intrinsic, and workplace studies bear this out all the time. Salary is NEVER the top driver of employee engagement or satisfaction. Sure, we all need money to pay the bills. That’s an important part of the contract. But money is not what makes us tick. The KPIs for the new people economy are respect, autonomy and independence, a sense of purpose, to doing work that challenges and grows me, and to feel that I am making a difference.

So, what are you going to choose, “Money or the box?”. And it might be a bit of both, which is fine. As long as you don’t let your whole life be ruled by the money.



Richard Sauerman
Richard Sauerman
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