The Secret To A Rich Life? (Hint: It Doesn’t Take Money)

Money is a poor measure of richness in our lives. The deepest vibrancy in our palettes isn’t bought with cash, but acquired through engagement in meaningful endeavors. And that’s encouraging for those of us with grand midlife ambitions.

Money – the desire for and amassing of it – plays the determinant role in most all the big decisions we make in our young lives: the careers we pursue, the colleges we attend to get those careers, the people money-happinesswe seek out, the places we live and homes we select. It also regulates the rituals that paint our everyday diaries: the restaurants, toys, vacations, friends and spouses we choose.

Doubters? How many of us pursue degrees in fascinating areas like anthropology or fine arts? No money in that. What determines college rankings? Usually post-graduation salaries are at the top of the criteria. How many of us seek out relationships below our socioeconomic tribe? Be honest. You may be friendly with the cleaning staff at work, but are you inviting them out for drinks?

We pay up for that great dining experience, handsome car, comfortable home, or social standing because spending money makes us feel important and accomplished, and the more we spend the more worthy we feel. This does indeed provide momentary happiness in most of us.

The irony in this enduring, global fixation with money is that its correlation with sustainable happiness is weak, and that connection weakens further as we age and mature. Remember Maslow and his colorful pyramid of needs? Once our basic needs of survival are met we aspire to greater things. Some, like self-esteem and acceptance, can be bought with flashy displays of accomplishment. But self-maslowrealization owns the peek of the pyramid, and that, my friends, is not for sale. In fact, the things that challenge our potential and reflect achievement most truthfully are available as equally to the poor as the rich.

Maslow’s thesis on human needs is supported by contemporary research in the field of positive psychology by leading academics like Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), Sonja Lyubomirsky (University of California, Riverside), and Barbara Fredrickson (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Seligman, Lyubomirsky, and Fredrickson are not self-help gurus. They do respected, peer-reviewed studies on the sources of sustainable happiness and self-realization. Their key findings align closely, and Seligman sums them up nicely with his concept of PERMA. The most effective proscription for maximizing the wellbeing and happiness in our lives is a combination of:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Positive relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments

None of these requires much money, but they do require effort. Engagement, meaning and a sense of accomplishment don’t come to us from sitting poolside with a drink, as relaxing as that sounds. Great for a summer reset, not so great for stimulating richness and zest in one’s life.

This is particularly encouraging for those of us at midlife and with (1) zero interest in a passive second half and (2) a constrained budget on which to operate. The 5 PERMA elements overlap and interweave and the pursuit of one introduces elements of the others.

Creativity is often highlighted by the 3 academics above as the low-hanging fruit in the search for meaning, engagement and accomplishment, and indeed it is the thread that laces together my own PERMA foundation. The mastery of creative pursuits costs little but offers profound opportunities for challenge and pleasure. I find my creative spark in the kitchen (there are few things more gratifying to hear than words of praise after an amazing meal made for others), with my music and writing, with the development of the Interprize Group (uncovering any entrepreneurial model that aligns most tightly one’s market requires creative thinking and constant adjustment). Sprinkle in the zest of solid friendships and spice of amour, and now you have a very lively stew for the engaged life. Total cost in time and effort: high; in cash: low.

A final thought. There really is no better source of opportunities for engagement than the pursuit of an interpreneurial project, something of deep personal meaning. It’s achievement brings the same sense of accomplishment any entrepreneur enjoys when realizing that her startup is finally reaching critical mass, that it might actually survive and thrive. But its greatest value is in the pursuit itself, which offers a rich sense of purpose and engagement, a feeling that that we’re continuing to participate in and contribute to our community and the greater world, not just suck from it through the stuff we buy. This gives us a surge in positive emotions, and that leads to more positive relationships. The better we feel and the more we’re loved, the deeper we engage in our ambitions, and this virtuous spiral propels us forward and up.

Onward and upward!

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