There’s more to wealth than just an abundance of money
Not long ago I wrote a piece on many forms of intelligence . We think of intelligence as being measured by Intelligence Quotient (or IQ), but really that only measures analytical intelligence (taking problems apart and finding solutions). There are other forms of intelligence too: emotional, creative, practical. They’re all valuable, and the happiest people aren’t necessarily those with the highest IQs.
It’s the same with wealth. If you search the internet for a definition, you’ll find yourself flooded with references to asset values and money. But wealth is much more than that. A definition I prefer is “plentiful supplies of a particular resource”; and there are many kinds of resources that make us feel rich in non-monetary ways.
(As you can tell, I like the notion of expanding concepts to consider relevant but infrequently used extensions!)
In this case I was prompted by a LinkedIn post from Dr Dan Crosby some weeks ago. I met Dan a few years ago at a conference at which we were both speaking, and I was very impressed by his wisdom and his engaging personality. Dan in LinkedIn was citing a blog post from someone else, and I googled the subject and found many references. So this is a notion that has been circulating for some time. And here’s my take on it.
Let’s start, and deal quickly, with the first and obvious form of wealth: money. Or rather, our net financial assets: the financial value of what we own, less the financial value of what we owe. In other words, our net worth.
This is what we measure, and for some people it’s not only a measure of what they’re worth, it seems to define them: they pursue it simply for the sake of having more, and they obsess over their net worth. Most people are happy with a lot of it, and happier with even more, but studies show that once we have enough to feel comfortably well off, it takes a lot more money to add even a little more happiness.
It reminds me of a story I heard of two old former classmates discussing a third member of their high school class, who was reported to be making more and more money. One asked the other: “What do you think? He has much more than both of us combined, I’m sure. Are you jealous?” To which the other replied: “No. Because I have something he’ll never have.” “What’s that?” “Enough.”
Indeed! That other person had other forms of wealth, other things that made for contentment and happiness.
What might they have been?
Human beings are social animals. And so an obvious additional form of wealth is our social relationships. Think not only of family but also of work colleagues and neighbors and people we frequently mix with, whether at church or online or wherever, as examples.
You may have heard of Dunbar’s number, 150: a projection (based on the size of the human brain compared with the brains of other primates) made by the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar as probably the highest number of meaningful relationships a human being can maintain.
Well, most of us have far fewer. Perhaps a single number represents the truly close relationships we have. The next circle (if we think of our friendships in concentric circles) may have 15 who matter, and the circle outside that perhaps 50.
But it’s not expanding the size of those numbers that counts. It’s the quality and closeness of the relationships: even a few is ample. In fact, having friends in each circle is vital to our emotional wellbeing, our happiness. As we age and move and lose friendships, the danger is that we feel lonely, even if we have social contact; and that is potentially very detrimental to our health. Having close social relationships can make the difference between premature death and happiness.
Yes, social relationships are truly a form of wealth.
I’ll take the next two forms of wealth together: physical and mental health.
Physical health in age-related ways acts in the opposite direction to financial wealth. With money, if we can gradually save or pay off debts, we gradually increase our net worth. At least that’s what happens while we’re working. Then we need to draw down our wealth to finance our post-retirement lifestyle. With physical health we typically peak when we’re young adults, and decline through middle age.
In fact we’re typically not conscious of physical health as a form of wealth. But look at that earlier definition of wealth: a plentiful supply of a particular resource. So yes, it is. And it’s best to enjoy it and renew it (you know how: it’s always sleep, diet and exercise) so that we don’t squander it.
Our mental abilities tend to peak (this is a very, very rough average, of course) from about age 35 through age 45, and then they start to decline slowly. But mental ability isn’t necessarily the same thing as mental health. And for maintaining mental health, we always get the same recommendations, involving sleep, diet and exercise. But those are all physical approaches.
In addition to those, it’s important to focus on good emotional health. Maintaining social contacts, engaging in relaxation and mindfulness exercises, and finding purpose in your life. Many people find that spirituality brings peace and reduces stress.
As with physical health, we tend not to appreciate how valuable mental health is unless we lose it, or see someone we know and love lose it.
The final form of non-financial wealth I’ll mention is time. And it too varies over one’s life, in a way that isn’t quite as obvious as it may seem.
What’s obvious is that its amount declines consistently over our lifetime. But that’s simply a mathematical fact, which doesn’t reflect its emotional value.
When we’re working, we typically feel short of time. That’s because we’re spending our time doing things we have to do (to earn a living) and typically those things aren’t what make us happy. It’s freedom that brings the opportunity for happiness, provided we spend that freedom well and don’t waste it. So it’s the freedom that time represents, that makes it a form of wealth.
And yet, again we often don’t appreciate its value, because when we retire (whether fully or partly) we suddenly find ourselves with a whole lot of free time on our hands – and suddenly our problem becomes, not finding time, but spending it in a way that makes us happy. And that requires developing your new identity, your new sense of purpose, and your new ways to fill your time. That’s a simple sentence that sums up everything my blog posts and books are all about! I can’t express the solution in an equally simple sentence – my apologies.
So here’s the summing up. Think of wealth as having five different forms: financial, social, physical, mental and time. And now that you’re consciously aware of all five forms, it should be clear that focusing on financial aspects alone may not be the best, or even a good, use of your abilities, because you might be able to gain more happiness via a greater focus on non-financial forms.
And therefore there’s an obvious exercise you might do. First, rate yourself on each of the five forms: on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 means you have all you need (an entirely personal and subjective assessment) and 0 means you have none. Next, decide which are the ones for which you would like to raise your rating (or, in some cases, preserve it). And then, list the ways in which you control your ability to influence those ratings.
Together, your conclusions after that exercise should suggest ways to usefully spend the time that’s available to you at this stage of your life. (And reassess your wealth and actions periodically.)
That’s as much help as I can give you. What you also need to do is to carry out your plan – but I can’t do that with you. You are the master of your fate.
Different forms of abundance make us wealthy in different ways. You have some control over increasing your wealth.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.