Wealth, Happiness, and Motivation


I recently read an insightful blog post by someone I consider a friend, Stephen Palmer.  Here is his blog post.

I posted a comment on his blog in response that I’ve copied below.  This is a topic that has been milling about in my mind, but never really got out of my head into writing until now.  Hopefully it edifies you as much as I felt edified getting it out of my head.  I felt somewhat guided and gained additional epiphanies as I wrote.

My observations:

Abundance does create competition, strife, envy, and jealousy, but not always. Scarcity does create compassion, agreement, generosity and goodwill, but not always.

Abundance can create compassion, agreement, generosity and goodwill, and it has. Scarcity can create competition, strife, envy, and jealousy, and it has.

I have lived in a relatively (for the US) affluent neighborhood. The people there were very generous and giving.

I have also spent a couple of years living in and visiting several neighborhoods in Brazil of relative (for the world) poverty. The people there were also very generous and giving.

In my experience the existence of competition, strife, envy, and jealousy as well as compassion, agreement, generosity and goodwill has less to do with the level of abundance or scarcity and more to do with the amount of true leadership that exists in the community.

There is no disrespect intended in the following analysis. Your point is well taken – I may be assuming too much, but I saw the implied answer as the industrious family worth millions to the question of who is more likely to feud when the heirs pass away. My own paraphrase of the axiom you followed up with is that the more wealth, the more potential for destructive behavior – which also implies to me the axiom that the less wealth the less potentially destructive the available options. I agree.

However, if the only data you are looking at is their relative affluence, there is ultimately no sure fire way to determine which is more likely to feud. For example:

It is true that if the humble farming family has a culture of industry and generosity, seeking continuous improvement; while the industrious family worth millions has a culture of envy and entitlement, looking out only for their own personal benefit at the expense of others; the answer to your question of which is most likely to feud is the industrious family worth millions, and it has probably happened more often in Western culture than the alternative.

However, if the parents in the poor, humble farming family had created a culture of envy and entitlement, living off of the generosity of others rather than seeking to be industrious themselves; and the parents of the industrious family worth millions had created a culture of generously helping those less well off, seeking continuous improvement; it is more likely that the poor family, rather than the family worth millions, will feud over the little inheritance that is left.

Happiness is an interesting thing. It doesn’t survive in stagnation. Both abundance and scarcity, if seen through the lens of true leaders who seeks continuous improvement for themselves and those around them, can be useful tools of motivation.

I compare motivation to fuel for a fire. Authors Orrin Woodward and Chris Brady, in their book Launching a Leadership Revolution, state that there are three levels of motivation, material gain, recognition, and purpose.

Purpose is the longest lasting fuel for the fire of motivation similar to large logs of dry wood, but have you ever tried to start a fire with those larger logs? It takes a lot of catalyst, and if all you ever feed a small flame of motivation is the large firewood of purpose, you’re more likely to smother and kill the fire than help it grow.

The pursuit of material wealth is an extremely superficial fuel for the fire of motivation. Like tinder and kindling, it burns out quickly, especially when faced with any significant opposition. If your fire of motivation is only ever built of a lot of material gain, and never helped along with recognition, and ultimately fed with purpose, it will ignite … and die quickly. But it also ignites quickly and more easily than either recognition or purpose. If followed up with the medium size fuel of recognition, and then fed with the larger firewood of purpose and continuously fed with more fuel when each successive purpose is close to being obtained, the fire of motivation and progress – the source of true happiness – will burn for as long as you have a meaningful purpose to place on it.