Four Things That Make Money Meaningful

Behind the long braids of barbed wire and tall machine-gun towers of Dachau came the unmistakable sound of laughter. A transport of prisoners from Auschwitz had just arrived, and they were joyful. 

To me, this was the most affecting scene in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, about his physical and spiritual survival in Nazi death camps. He and his fellow captives became elated upon realizing they had been relocated to a camp without a chimney. As he writes: “We laughed and cracked jokes in spite of, and during, all we had to go through in the next few hours.”

Even in the darkest periods of mankind, fleeting moments of felicity could be found. Throughout the book, Frankl details what gave him a sense of meaning – art, humor, work, camaraderie – which helped him carry on over his several years in captivity.

As people tried to take away his humanity, he abided by the very thing he believed makes us human: “[A] human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy…through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.”

Whether you believe it is the pattern recognition system in our brains or some deep ineffable cosmic conscious, it is hard to deny we hunger for meaning. And regardless of your circumstances, you need not go far to find it.

So, if there is meaning to be found in everything, what about money?

How we use money can be considered an expression of what we consider meaningful. Although it is easy to succumb to societal pressures and spend it on status symbols that provide no meaning at all.

It’s why any financial adviser worth a damn will tell you to concentrate on your values, the things that truly give your life meaning. Those things help you use money not to build wealth for wealth’s sake but build life satisfaction. What good is money if you feel empty?

What is meaningful to you, may not be to me; and what is meaningful to me, may not be to you. However, there four things that often involve money and that various studies show are where most people tend to find meaning in their lives.

1. Family

When I look at my bank statement, I can separate expenses into categories like entertainment, food, transportation, etc. But underlying about 90% of them is one thing: family.

Perhaps, you can relate.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Center conducted two separate surveys asking Americans what makes their lives feel meaningful. By far the most popular answers were family and spending time with family.

There are many ways money can meaningfully promote the well-being of your family. A fully stocked fridge. A home in a safe neighborhood. Monthly contributions to a college fund. A weekly move night.

And above all, there is the financial freedom to spend as much quality time with your family as you want. For the greatest asset you can provide your family is your presence.

It’s worth nothing family doesn’t have to mean married with children. It can encompass your extended family, your close friends, any group you belong to, your pets – whomever you call loved ones.

How often do you regret spending money on the prosperity of your family? Probably never.

2. Helping others

World religions and philosophies have been teaching it since antiquity: One of the greatest sources of meaning comes from not what you do for yourself but what you do for others.

Consider what those who have reached retirement have to say. According to an Age Wave/Merrill Lynch study, retirees were three times more likely to say “helping people in need” brings them happiness in retirement than “spending money on themselves,” with the majority of those who donated money or volunteered feeling “a stronger sense of purpose.”

When giving back is a priority, your financial life invariably becomes more meaningful. You may make regular donations. You might arrange your finances so that you can spend more time volunteering both now and in the future. And as you think more of others, you are less likely to spend money on things that don’t end up improving your life nor anyone else’s.

3. Experiences

If you want to use money more meaningfully, then buy more experiences and less material items.

Numerous studies show that people enjoy greater well-being and happiness from life experiences and consider them to be a better use of money.

The joy of material items is short-lived. Whereas joy builds in the anticipation of an experience, is released during the experience and lasts in the form of memory.

A higher value placed on experiences can make you more intentional with your money, or even more comfortable not spending money at all. Experiences help train your brain to find meaning in the abstract – the thrill of riding down a hill on a skateboard, a long walk through the woods, the laughter of a child – things that stay with you long after they’re over.

Meaning is all around you if you look. Frankl believed experiences were one of the primary ways of finding meaning in life:

“The second way of finding a meaning in life is by experiencing something – such as goodness, truth and beauty – by experience nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness.”

Frankl’s first way of discovering meaning? Work.

4. Work

Meaning isn’t derived only from how we use money. We actually find meaning most in how we earn it. In the Pew surveys mentioned above, work/career was second only to family as the most cited source of meaning.

Sure, your salary can be used as a measure of success. Which is a feeling that is multiplied by all the things your hard-earned money does for you outside the workplace.

But it is the accomplishments, the projects done, the challenges overcome and the creativity involved that make work so meaningful.

It is one reason why many older adults plan to work in retirement – not because they have to, but because they want to. You can’t always replicate the sense of being part of something bigger, the sense of achievement, or the sense of usefulness in a leisure activity that you find in work.

When you find meaning in your work or career, you can boost your earning potential while avoid trying to find meaning by impulsively spending your paycheck.

Money helps nurture the things that give you meaning. But money isn’t a requirement for living a meaningful life. Living a meaningful life though will always lead to using money meaningfully.

Friday Five

It is a pleasure to read a president who can write well

What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide. In that world—of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity—we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. 

Much wisdom in this thread of Carl Richards’s drawings from How I Invest My Money

Author R.O. Kwon on the power of optimism

Hope is not just a feeling; like love, it is a practice. It is a verb. It is action.

The last interview with Ursula K. Le Guin

You do invent wonderful landscapes. The Earthsea trilogy creates such a vivid picture of the sea — have you done a lot of sailing?

Le Guin: All that sailing is complete fakery. It’s amazing what you can fake… they always tell people to write about what they know about. But you don’t have to know about things, you just have to be able to imagine them really well.

Friday Fiction: Mark Haddon

He had not eaten today nor had he drunk. He would wait until the craving had passed, then allow himself to do both when it became a choice, not a lost battle in his long war against the base needs of the body.


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