Is Getting Rich Worth It?

The titular question was posed on Quora, and one rich person, who claims to have made $15M after selling a tech startup offers a surprisingly nuanced and insightful answer:

“Being rich is better than not being rich, but it’s not nearly as good as you imagine it is.”

Other rich responders were less enthusiastic. Another writes:

“Made $20M on second start-up. Finally, real f’you money. I feel no better. Yes, I bought a better house. I didn’t even bother to buy nicer cars. Who cares. I just bought some more jeans. Look, I am intellectually proud and gratified to have this money. But it didn’t buy my freedom, which I had from before. It didn’t improve the quality of my life.”

Informally, I’ve also had the chance to meet rich people. My sense from those encounters is that being rich is nice, but it’s hardly the panacea people make it to be. I doubt many of those rich people are significantly happier than they would be with only a moderate income. Some may even be less happy.

The research also sides with this intuition. Kahneman shares in this talk that the relationship between money and happiness flattens at around $60,000 per year.

However, when I ask people who aren’t earning a lot of money about this, the responses are nearly universal. They would be ecstatic to have such wealth, and can’t comprehend why those spoiled, ungrateful rich people aren’t living in utopia.

I imagine even now many of you are rolling your eyes at even the mention of rich people complaining about being rich. But that’s exactly my point. Why are our intuitions so different from reality? If being fabulously rich is only a moderate boost to happiness, why don’t we see it that way, in advance?

Location Independence, Freedom and Money

Being rich is just one fantasy. You could replace the entire preceding introduction with “location independence”, “fame” or “a relationship”. People who don’t have them feel they would change everything. People who do have them find they don’t change nearly as much as they had thought.

In that way, I suppose I too live a life which is only a fantasy to some. I’m a full-time blogger. I can live wherever I want, work on whatever I want and how much I want. While I’m not super rich, I’m earning much more than I had expected when I got started nearly seven years ago.

I say this not to brag, but to provide contrast. For the first eighteen years of my life I lived in an isolated tiny town in northern Manitoba. My parents are middle class, but I definitely had my poor moments in college. I washed my clothes in a bathtub for a year because the laundromat was too expensive.

I’ve been enormously lucky, and I’m both grateful and happy. Success has made me happier, but like the previous respondents, the change is less dramatic than you would think. I worry about money less, I travel more, and I certainly don’t have the entrepreneurial angst that came with starting an unproven business.

I feel my success may have even been buffered from the disillusionment of the previous examples. I never really strove for location independence, fame or money. All I wanted to do was to be able to run a business without needing a job. My dream was to do something, not to have something. This might explain why having a lot of money and nothing to do feels empty. Life is more about doing, than having.

I was fortunate enough to anticipate that money and location independence wouldn’t make me happy. So when they entered my life, I saw them as being nice perks, not disappointments because my day-to-day life remained mostly unchanged.

The one thing I didn’t predict in advance was the orienting power of my goal itself. Having devoted myself for seven years towards a goal that I not only achieved, but surpassed my expectations was wonderful. But it also led inevitably to ask what could possibly fill the gap?

The Hungers of Life

Imagine, for a moment, the last time you were extremely hungry. So hungry that all you could think about was food (if you can’t think of that, then imagine a time you were in another physical pain, such as exhaustion, heat or cold). In those moments, that pain constrains your life—it focuses your attention and defines how you see the world.

Now remember what it was like to eat food again after that moment of hunger. It probably felt good, for a few minutes, and then there was nothing. When you’re starving, food feels like it will fill you forever and make all your worries disappear. When you’re satiated, the pleasure lasts only for a moment before your mind orients itself to something different.

I argue being rich is like being full. It’s not a bad feeling, and certainly better than being hungry. But as long as you’re well fed, food just isn’t something you think much about.

Most of us have had enough experience with both hunger and fullness to realize that being well-fed doesn’t mean life becomes perfect. But few people have had the same sense of ‘fullness’ with money, to have had the same experience.

If you currently have some hunger in your life for something, be it money, fame, freedom or a relationship, realizing that these hungers are a lot like the physical hungers can help you avoid the disappointment you might feel when you realize that satiation didn’t fix all your problems.

Life Needs Constraints

Great designs always have constraints. In many ways, design is defined by constraints and using them elegantly. Often these constraints are from the environment, but good designers also self-impose constraints.

Life, in this sense, is like a process of design. Without constraints, you have a mess, not blissful freedom. People who live well either take constraints from the environment, or impose others on themselves to live in a more meaningful way.

Some constraints aren’t particularly inspiring of great works. The lowest possible budget hasn’t been the constraint that has produced the best architecture and art. But, it can also be argued, neither has having an unlimited budget with no other limiting scope.

Having more money, location independence, or success in any other dimension, often lifts environmental constraints from our lives. This is usually a positive thing, as I believe self-selected constraints probably result in better art than the random assortment of constraints given to us at birth.

But with more freedom, there is more discipline required to constrain your art.

Maybe you’ll never be rich or location independent. Maybe you even scoff at the idea that these represent real problems, and aren’t just narcissistic whining.

However we live in a rapidly changing world where many of the old constraints may no longer apply. Location independence becomes more common, as GDP rises, more people will live far above subsistence. As old constraints become less relevant, it will be up to us to decide what the new ones should be.

  • Benjamin Chavez

    All people are different. Some people will never be happy no matter what. Some people enjoy a challenge in life. I have worked in different industries and have found out that the people at the top of the organization have been challenged and pushed through obstacles all their lives and have benefited from that type of personality while some people at the bottom of the organizations have declared themselves victims. They feel they can’t get ahead. Well that’s not true. I’m very successful and I came from poverty. My parents were both working minimum wage jobs and had very little money that they ended up investing and became very wealthy as I got older. For me I was born and raised in Boyle heights California (not the best place to raise kids) and dropped out of school. Know I’m a corporate manager for one of the biggest companies in the u.s… Life is what you make it don’t tell yourself I can’t afford something tell yourself how can I afford it. Many people come to this country from different parts of the world and trust me they are grateful to be here. Happiness is wealth!!!

  • Daniel

    Having more money definitely gives you more options, but a lot of people with money have pretty boring lives anyway. I think the most important thing is to have a mission, like Scott says: “Life is more about doing something than having something.”

  • Michelle

    I like your constraints idea – that makes sense!

  • Michelle

    I have been thinking more about this and realised that it comes down to Maslow’s Heirachy of Needs; once the bottom levels are covered, they become less important (as long as they are still covered!)

  • Maria @ Money Development

    Hi Scott, thank you for a very good post.
    I think most of all we need balance, an inner balance between our outer goals and our inner goals. Getting rich can become an obsession and “kill” your inner richness. The good question is, where is the real value? I think I should have good values first, like inner freedom, inner aboundance, etc.. and then manifest it all in the “outer” reality.
    You can have many things and an empty heart, but if your heart is rich you get all the things you need.

  • Mikayla

    I agree as well. I do love the part about life being more about doing, rather then having. As a college student myself, I’d say that having money would help with stress, but not necessarily make me happier pur se.

  • Mark

    Do you feel that what you are doing benefits society in a profound way? Is what you do indispensable or just a goal to achieve, something to do, like Arnold Schwarzenegger says in the documentary The Comeback of Arnold? He basically says his goals are ridiculous and mean nothing but he sets and achieves them just to do something. Personally while I understand this sentiment and it is a good time filler, I believe our society(global) is all at sea on the subject of work and life. What I mean is we have lost our way. Our work is no longer a life’s work (not sure it ever was) and it should be meaningful and truly advance society. We no longer give our lives through work as perhaps Einstein would express, we simply find ways to entertain ourselves , make a living or get rich. We find something to do. Personally I find this a great tragedy and downright selfish. There is no longer any personal sacrifice for well anything. It has been replaced with an attitude of entitlement and a view of “progress” that is a bastard child of the industrial revolution. The five year plan, goal setting, achievement, working hard, accomplishment are all not essentially evil but have been distorted and misused in a desperate fearful attempt to regain some semblance of control over our lives.

    respectfully Mark J. Hill

  • Mark

    true wealth is being able to do without.

  • George Ball

    I don’t care if all of you disagree with me. But being financially wealthy is completely worth it. And any intelligent, wise, or commonly sensed individual would be much happier because of it. If someone tells you different, like this “blogger”; they are probably lying to you to make money off of your confusion.

  • High Returns

    Richness is definitely is from within. Financial wealth is a fragment of everyone’s existence. Remember money only exists so I don’t have to trade a chicken with my neighbour to obtain a goat in order to get a week supply of milk. Money is a tool. Nothing else. People can choose what to do with that tool. We’d be happy for you to invest in our company and for you to donate all the profits to a charity of your choice. If you know of any private investors or VC’s who are looking for companies with a track record, solid returns and who are looking to invest $50K-$500K. Then we’d be happy to conference with them. We are also happy to let investors test our credibility with short term maturities and smaller funding amounts if they require. We offer genuine high returns (60%pa) with the protection offered to you by international trust law. And the profits can go to your chosen charity if you prefer. Have a look on http://www.universaltrustees.b… or or contact me on

  • Martin

    I do not understand why people bring in the discussion of money into happiness or sadness. They have nothing to do with each other. Making money is just another talent. It’s like saying: “being the best piano player will not bring you happiness” “being the best pottery artist will not bring you happiness”

    Americans have to get over the stigma of money otherwise those obsessed with it (whether for or against the rich – and usually the latter) will never be happy.

  • Justin Pickering

    Great article. Some business partners and I nearly closed a deal that would have made us millionaires in our early 30s. We came so heartbreaking close. We raised $500,000 for the operational costs of the business and it was all lost. This was 3 years ago. What I remember from the experience was the intellectually challenging work and the huge amount I learned along the way. Now, I am not a millionaire. My wife and I earn about $90k after taxes together, which makes us comfortable. All bills are paid, there is more than enough food, gas, clothing, travel, vacations, etc.

    Will I try again in my new business venture to become a millionaire? I dont think so. If I earn $50-100k per year, I will be ecstatic. Its a translation business in case you were curious.

    I agree with another commentor who said that Americans need to learn to be less money-focused. We do. Our collective unconscious is sick and bloated with greed. Moderation and accepting of limitations may be a healthier path. Given the fact that we are sending all our jobs overseas and that we dont manufacture anything anymore, long term economic well being is in severe jeopardy. Natural forces may create the conditions in which millions of us Americans have to adapt to living with less….

  • Cpt Michael Metzler Sr.

    Good health and happiness to me is being wealthy! I’ve been a military (retired) and civilian Helicopter Test Pilot for 27+ years and made lots of money during the way, but it did not make me happier. Less stressful and able to buy things that I wanted (not needed) without having to go in debt.

    Now ask yourself this question. “Would I give away all of my money to be cured of an inoperable brain tumor or cancer?” 99.9 % of us WILL answer YES. Why? That’s a question that need not be asked. How many rich people out there today do you think would cast away all of their money to be healthy, if they were told that same thing??? Be honest! I rest my case!

  • Cpt Michael Metzler Sr.

    Good health and happiness to me is being wealthy! I’ve been a military (retired) and civilian Helicopter Test Pilot for 27+ years and made lots of money during the way, but it did not make me happier. Less stressful and able to buy things that I wanted (not needed) without having to go in debt.

    Now ask yourself this question. “Would I give away all of my money to be cured of an inoperable brain tumor or cancer?” 99.9 % of us WILL answer YES. Why? That’s a question that need not be asked. How many rich people out there today do you think would cast away all of their money to be healthy, if they were told that same thing??? Be honest! I rest my case!