The Psychology of Money: What Does our Relationship to Money Say About Us?
Your relationship to money can reflect your sense of self-worth
The psychology behind why money can't buy happiness
Christmas - the time of year where the world of the spiritual and the material very often collide. We might be conscious of the need to imbibe some sort of meaning into the church of mass consumerism – but that’s usually after we’ve shopped, eaten, partied, and shopped again.
It’s the time of year when our relationship with money very often reaches heightened levels of anxiety and yet studies show it’s the one relationship in our life we are least likely to look at. In fact, we can feel so detached from money, we don’t even think of ourselves as having a relationship with it at all. And we’ll do anything not to talk about it. Studies show that money is very often the most difficult conversation to have, with 44% of people saying they’d even rather talk about those other two taboos - sex and death - before broaching any conversation about finances.
And yet, exploring our relationship with money can be revelatory on so many levels. We can find out so much about ourselves by unpacking our cultural and personal relationship with our bank balance. At its most basic level, money can be seen as just a medium for exchange and yet the many meanings we ascribe to it are hugely powerful forces in our life: security, power, love, freedom, comfort, and the list goes on and of course everybody’s list is deeply personal.
What does our relationship to money say about us?
From a psychotherapeutic point of view, we could say that money symbolises our shadowy side. We project all our unconscious relationships to values and self-worth onto the amount of money we earn, or feel we ought to earn. We may find ourselves “slaves” to money, organising our whole lives around making more and more, or we may wonder why money never seems to come our way, perhaps suspecting that deep down we are not worthy of more. Either way, the triangular relationship we have between money, values and our self-worth is hugely revealing.
It is also a relationship heavily intertwined with our society and culture. Take bankers. We might both admire and despise the wealth such as that displayed by Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” character from Oliver Stone’s 1987 drama Wall Street. Moving on another 30 years, we’re no longer keeping up with the Joneses; we have the Kardashians to contend with. And while we may find their over-the-top opulence vulgar, there’s a reason why Kim Kardashian has 100 million Instagram followers.
Can money make us happy?
We might instinctively know that money doesn’t make us happy and that beyond a certain point, our happiness stops rising with our income (various studies have come up with different levels of where this peaks). And this knowledge has been proven by what is known as the Hedonic Treadmill, a psychological theory, that shows the more money an individual makes, the more their expectations and desires rise in tandem with that increase in income, which results in no permanent gain of happiness at all.
Indeed, the British psychologist Oliver James claims there is an epidemic sweeping through the English-speaking world, that he calls Affluenza. In his book, he claims the richer we become materially, the poorer we become psychologically and emotionally. According to his research, mass materialism is making us twice as prone to depression, anxiety and addiction. Indeed, this idea that materialism makes us miserable has been around for many years. In his book, The Sane Society, published in 1956, the social philosopher and psychoanalyst Dr Erich Fromm wrote: “A healthy economy is only possible at the expense of unhealthy human beings.”
Yes, our relationship with money is indeed a complex one. As the Jungian analyst James Hillman wrote in his 1982 essay, A Contribution to Soul and Money: “Money problems are inevitable, necessary, irreducible, always present, and potentially if not actually overwhelming. Money is devilishly divine.”
He goes onto say that money “can be taken spiritually or materially but which in itself is neither.” And that “if money divides the two realms, is it also that third which holds them together?” Hillman is touching on very raw nerve: can I be paid well, want nice things and be a good person? In this, he seems to be suggesting that money and soul must be explored together. That we cannot keep dividing the material from the spiritual and that to fully explore oneself, we must look inwards to explore our relationship with money. As we look towards the festive season, with all its inherent contradictions between the spiritual and the material, perhaps there is no finer time to begin the exploration.