Money isn't everything anymore

Aaah! There's certainly nothing like the holidays for a bit of time away to escape. It's the chance to reset priorities and realise what the most important things in life really are. And, for those of us lucky enough to have had the chance of spending a couple of days by the beach, feeling the sand flowing through our toes and plunging into the surf, there's absolutely no doubt that society's convinced the meaning of life can be summed up in one word.


We value everything by means of money, but it does not buy happiness.
We value everything by means of money, but it does not buy happiness. 

After all, serious wealth is required to buy (or rent) the big beach house with the excellent views, covered verandah, and a nicely chilled Marlborough sauvignon blanc in the ice bucket. It's a big coast but it seems there still aren't quite enough bungalows for all of us. The consequence is inevitable: the price spirals upwards. The young might be happy enough lying in a hammock, barbecuing sausages by the fire, but as one grows older habits become more sedentary. I want a soft bed and fancy food. It's a simple equation and we're forced to choose. How close to the beach do you really need to be?

That's where money comes in to provide its helpful benchmarking. It balances our desires by offering a simple reference point. Is a waterfront hang-out really necessary or will a couple of streets back do just as well for half the price? The key to making such decisions is not to obsess about getting the best deal. Just because something costs more doesn't mean it's going to be better, or make you happier.

This, thankfully, is where the equation breaks down. We instinctively know that real pleasure isn't correlated with the amount of money you have to spend. It's derived, instead, from interactions with other people or the environment. We begin to understand this as we escape our usual daily pressures while we're off on holiday. As soon as we return to work, however, everything we've learnt is challenged. The way we live, advertising, the media, and any of the myriad of other messages we're constantly bombarded with insist that money is the only arbiter of real value, as if more of it might somehow offer the key to success in life.

It doesn't, but holding on to reality is difficult when our society is so completely predicated on using money as the defining medium of exchange. It's the ultimate arbiter. It's used to measure everything – even those things that can't, actually, be measured – such as purchasing someone to care for our children or with whom to have sex. But everything has its price and so we quickly begin assuming that the price is right. That this house really is really 'worth' more than the one; that money equals happiness.


We know this isn't the case in our heart, of course, nevertheless it takes a great deal of effort to maintain the sort of balanced equilibrium that allows us to value the things we do have in abundance. These are the things that can't be bought; love and time. It might be easier to be happy when you're wealthy, but money isn't the only requirement for wellbeing. People are born with a complex bundle of needs and desires and our lives are spent searching for ways of fulfilling these. Because there will never be enough money to go around, most of us will have to find other ways of actualising our needs and obtaining our requirements.

Break it down like this and it all seems so obvious. Unfortunately these understandings are diametrically opposed to the way society works. Politicians have been amongst the worst of the materialist propagandists, insisting that Australia will be ruined if it doesn't quickly become more productive; run faster; work harder. It's true that a bigger population might mean cheaper goods, but that won't stretch the coastline to give us more sand or guarantee a better standard of living. Not everyone can be a winner.

The more material toys distract us from what's really important. The greater the disjunct between our circumstances and happiness, the more discontented we become.

For too long we've been told we can have it all, that working harder will provide greater happiness. That may have been true in the 20th Century, before we all possessed fridges and cars. But today we've reached the point at which the ever-bigger television screen offers diminishing returns in the viewing experience; where our failing eyes can't quite perceive the higher definition that's accruing from those extra pixels. At this point we're being led by the nose, rather than the brain.

I'm as addicted to new toys as anyone ... but this doesn't have to mean that we accept, unquestioningly, that value equates to price. If the story of last century was one that saw people freed from scrabbling to simply exist, this century's narrative is all about developing our inner selves and leading fulfilled lives. This, as much as anything, explains why we've become so disenchanted with the political process and why Malcolm Turnbull has been so well received.

His innovation statement may yet prove to be just another one of those government blueprints that vanish without trace a couple of months afterward, like the Asia White Paper or the Gonski report. They set the bar for success very low. Yet I think, hope, this will be different. The problem with those previous attempts to define answers was that they were blueprints for the future, prescriptive and didactic, when the future can't be addressed sensibly by statements, it requires a conversation.

Definitive 'plans' represent the sort of document bureaucrats love because they're like money. They assign value to everything and push creative thinking out the window. The world's changing. That type of thinking isn't of value any more.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.