What is Wealth?
However you measure it, it’s more about value than currency.
Researchers for Harvard Business School recently surveyed 4,000 millionaires about the correlation between money and happiness. Among their findings were that wealthier people are somewhat more content than those with less money. Overall, a person with a net worth of $10 million is happier than a person worth $1 million.
Yet regardless of how much money somebody had, the survey participants felt like total happiness was always still a few more dollars away. Whether their net worth was $1 million or $10 million, they all indicated that they needed just a little bit more to be completely content.
“The biggest misconception is that more will be better,” concluded Harvard business professor Michael Norton, who conducted the study with Grant Donnelly.
So what, then, is wealth? Business Alabama asked three non-businesspeople to reflect on the question. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham
Wealth provides security and options for people. The more you have, the more options and security you have. But what that means depends on your economic system. In our case in a capitalist society, it’s monetized, so it’s measured in dollars.
If you’re in a socialist or a communist society, then wealth might depend more on your power and authority, though there are still people who have a lot of monetary wealth in those societies. In medieval times, it might have been the amount of land you had or the number of people you had working for you. But it still translates to the amount of options and security that you have.
So it’s a reflection on the economic system. In a capitalist system, the measurement is the dollar, and that becomes the defining mechanism. You can live a very full life, which is different. But in our culture we wouldn’t necessarily define that as wealth.
The question I find interesting is, “If you have a lot of material wealth, do you have an obligation to give back?” Some people don’t like the phrase “give back,” because it makes it seem like an obligation. They feel like when you make your money, it’s your money, and what you do with it is your choice.
Throughout our history there have been haves and have-nots, and I think most people agree there needs to be some element of a safety net in our economic structure. But who is responsible for providing that safety net? Some people say that is the function of the government. Other people will say individuals or businesses that have accumulated the wealth should give back to those who have-not. There’s a tension there about how you fund or provide that safety net.
Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mobile
Wealth is what we can ultimately keep. If we can’t ultimately keep something, it’s really not ours and it doesn’t really enrich us. As a man of faith, I believe that our deeds go with us when we ultimately go before God. So it is the good that we have done that is our true wealth. Money is neither good nor bad. It’s what we do with it that is our true wealth. How have we positively affected the lives of others and made the world a little better because we have passed through it?
I once heard somebody say, “That man is so poor, all he has is money.” That has always stuck with me. That would be tragic if that’s all you have. Ultimately, what do we feel is going to enrich us? That’s our wealth.
Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) said we tend to focus on what’s urgent but not important and tend to ignore what’s important but not urgent. To me, wealth is realizing what’s important and making that a part of our life. Because it’s those relationships and the good we do in them that we can keep.
Money is not bad or good. It’s what we do with it. We can try to accumulate more and more, but that really doesn’t make us wealthy. When we go before God, the Bible says what we bring with us are our good deeds. It’s all about putting our faith into action. How have I shown love for God by love of neighbor?
Executive Director of the Jimmy Hale Mission in Birmingham
Wealth is not just money. Webster’s says wealth is “a plentiful amount.” Does that mean you have more than you need? It may not be more than you want, but more than you need. It’s not about having enough finances or materials. It’s about having your needs met. That’s a whole different concept.
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy, there are four levels of needs. Food, shelter and clothing are physical needs. The next level is emotional needs. That you know that you have worth and value, that you’re accepted and approved and have a proper self-esteem. Then you have intellectual and philosophical needs. What is your purpose? Then the fourth is the spiritual need. I define that as fulfilling the God-spot that is within you.
You can be financially wealthy and still be poor by not having your needs met. You are poor emotionally. There are a lot of rich people who are just not happy. They make that first million and think that’s going to take care of all the needs that they have, but it doesn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with money. Money is neutral. All of us want more money. But we don’t want money controlling us instead of us controlling it. Do you love things and use people, or do you love people and use things? Do you define yourself by your possessions? Do you define yourself by how big your bank account is? What does a person feel is going to bring about well-being? And once they obtain it, were their expectations realistic?
So true wealth comes when all your needs are met, whatever they might be. Because if your needs aren’t met, then you’re operating from a deficit.
Cary Estes is a Birmingham freelancer for Business Alabama.