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The Tension Between Meaning And Money

Written by: Travis Shelton, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


In a world that tells us money above all else, more is better than less, and standard of living is the same thing as quality of life, I feel a bit on an island. I'm a finance professional who says the opposite. We should pursue meaning over money, money doesn't buy happiness, and our quality of life is completely disconnected from our standard of living. Weird ideas, I know. My objective is for you to at least consider it could be true.

Does money make us happy?

Let’s start with the foundational question from which all subsequent questions hinge: does money make us happy? Yes, money makes us very happy…until the moment our basic needs are met. Then, according to behavioral science, the correlation between money and happiness drastically decreases. Deep down I think most of us realize this, but there are complicating factors that make the journey difficult. We live in a world full of commercials for new and shiny things, bombarding us from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed. We live in a world where the people in our circles make more than us (the comparison curse!). We live in a world where people’s highlight reels are plastered all over social media. We live in a world where money is a scorecard for success. Money equals winning.

Regardless of where you are reading this, you likely experience some version of culture pushing you towards money. For some, it’s the status money can bring. Or maybe it’s the influence it buys. Or the possessions it can afford you. Or the experiences it has the power to unlock. Or the feeling of security knowing there’s a certain sum sitting in savings/investments. Whatever yours is, I have no doubt these cultural forces are indeed real and powerful.

It's interesting to think about the natural tension we all feel when it comes to meaning and money. We’ve been so programmed to pursue money that many of us haven’t stopped to ask ourselves how that path is working out.

The following statistic is specific to the United States of America, but based on my many travels around the world, I suspect most countries have a similar situation. According to studies, 70% of Americans either dislike or hate their job. 7 out of 10!?!? To me, this statistic illustrates perfectly how this pursuit of money is going for us. Naysayers may argue these numbers skew heavily towards the people who simply have less….less income, less freedom, less status, and less education. Completely false! In fact, in my experience (anecdotally speaking) the more income someone makes, the higher probability they dislike their jobs. It’s not because higher-paying jobs are inherently bad, or higher incomes make us unhappy. Rather, the more financial success we experience in a job, the harder it becomes to leave…..even if we despise the work. This is sometimes referred to as golden handcuffs. I regularly meet with families making $300,000 - $700,000 USD per year who experience week-to-week, month-to-month misery in their careers. But the money (and what it falsely promises them) keeps them coming back for more misery.

The tension between meaning and money presents itself in all sorts of fun and tangible ways. Take cars, for example. I was recently meeting with a highly successful couple who drive vehicles that would make car enthusiasts envious. They wake up each morning with dread, hop into their luxury vehicles, drive to the jobs they hate, to afford the payments for the vehicles they are driving, dreaming about a day (someday) when they no longer have to drive to this dreaded place. Meanwhile, there’s another couple I work with who drive older vehicles with hefty miles on them. They excitedly wake up each morning, hop into their less-than-ideal vehicles, joyfully drive to the jobs they love, to afford the things in life that provide so much meaning. One family chose money, and the other meaning.

Vacations are another great example. One couple I work with is planning an amazing trip. Exotic locations, first-class everything, once-in-a-lifetime experiences woven throughout. The anticipation couldn't be higher. They truly hate their jobs and nothing gives them more excitement than the prospect of escaping for a few weeks. Another family is also planning for an upcoming trip. Compared to the first family, this trip is lame. No exotic locations, no first-class amenities, somewhat normal experiences. But here's the important part. Though this couple is excited about the trip, they also have mixed emotions. They love their jobs and a part of them will miss the work while they're gone. Ultimately, they will be excited to leave and be just as excited to return home to jump back into their lives. Meanwhile, the first family's bubble will eventually burst as they realize it's time to go home and limp back into the life they despise (with a pile of backed-up work waiting for them). One family chose money, and the other meaning.

In case you're wondering, please don't hear me saying we should choose between meaning and money. I'm not implying choosing meaning is a one-way ticket to financial poverty. Far from it! In fact, in many cases, the people who choose the meaning will ultimately have more financial success than they would by pursuing money. Why? When we wake up each day excited about the work we're about to do and invest our passions and giftedness into it, it's hard not to succeed at some level.

If you pursue money, you may just find it. It may ultimately lack meaning, but the money will be real. Financial success is financial success, but at what cost? If you pursue meaning, you will undoubtedly find it…and the money may also follow as a result.

That's the tension many of us face. Pursue meaning or pursue money. I never fault people for pursuing money. After all, culture does everything it can to push us in that direction. And the appeal of money is intense. As you navigate your journey, I hope more times than not you choose meaning. I don't think you'll regret it!

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Travis Shelton, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Travis Shelton is a financial coach, speaker, writer, and host of the Meaning Over Money podcast. Through various platforms, he engages in conversations about money and work, but through a different lens. He aims to help people live a life of meaning by pursuing work that matters, creating impact on others, and redefining the role money plays in their lives. In his coaching, he works with people ranging from teachers, executives, missionaries, business owners, lawyers, doctors, and professional athletes.



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