How to be richer than you've ever been

2012-02-07 21:53

Wealth is largely self-norming; while people tend to want more money, past some point (I think currently around $50k/year income in the US) it stops actually showing measurable effects on happiness.

Here’s why: Because wealth is largely relative, and you are always relative primarily to yourself. If you have a given amount of money, that is the normal amount of money. If you start to have less, you’ll feel sad and poor. Even though you may well have enough money to meet your needs — or at least, to meet what you would regard as your “unmet” needs if you had half as much as you do now.

Here’s the gimmick: You can manipulate the natural framing trends of the human brain substantially. You can make money change in its perceived value, and one way to do this is to immerse yourself in contexts where it has different values.

So let’s say you are a programmer, and you work in the midwestern US. According to the Internet, the average salary for someone in your position is about $50-55k annually. You might have some savings and such. Go look at your bank account. Doesn’t look great, does it? There’s people with lots more than that. Now, go look for some poor people. Ask around. Chances are good that you know someone who’s unemployed, or working at a fast food place. Artists are always a good bet, so are disabled people.

Find out what this person’s monthly rent is. Be prepared for a bit of sticker shock; when I did this, it turned out that the person I was talking to had monthly rent a little under a sixth of our monthly mortgage.

Now pay it. Don’t lend them the money, just pay their rent. Get your mind used to the idea that this amount of money is good for a month’s reprieve from the perennial fear of being homeless with nowhere to go.

Can’t afford that? Go to a cash machine, withdraw whatever your daily limit is, and wander around buying scruffy-looking people lunch. Go to the grocery store and offer to buy the groceries of the first person you see there with a little kid. Look at the amounts involved. A friend of mine was sorta panicked recently over losing food stamps — worth a princely $16/month. That is not a typo.

Now go look at your bank account. Man, you are rich.

It turns out that it costs less to keep your brain calibrated to this kind of money than it does to buy a new car every year, too. You can feel richer and more successful than people who earn a lot more money than you do. Oh, and you might save a few people from disaster. That’s always nice.

Peter Seebach