Most of us able to read this are living the high life by world standards. With a couple of notable exceptions such as health care and pensions, you will probably not spend much of your life worrying about food, shelter, personal safety, freedom, self-expression, or choice in what you do or how you spend your time. (Some of those blessed with spouses may disagree on one or two of these!)

Most of us are riding the great Career Escalator of jobs, promotions, mortgages, car payments. People get on for many reasons – it gives them a place to stand, and it is an easy, relatively dependable way to get to the top and progress through their career. They expect that the destination will be higher than their starting point. There is nothing invalid about such an assumption, however, there is something wrong with the mentality that keeps many on this escalator trapped in this pattern for the rest of their productive lives. Well-educated and opportunistic people can earn considerable paychecks, live in places of prosperity and opportunity, love and be loved by their families, and still feel incomplete. Why?

Instruments of Happiness and the Role of Money

There is an exercise done at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, a simple exercise, where students make a simple list of the things that bring them joy. Here’s an excerpt of mine:

  • Transcendence listening to music
  • Taking an opportunity to recreate/re-envision myself
  • The most intimate of connections, the long conversation with one person
  • Watching a quiet landscape
  • Appreciating and creating artistry

Even those things I love that require money don’t essentially require a lot of it. Most people who do this exercise at the d. school will come to a similar conclusion. So, why is it that we spend so much money on status symbols: the powerful cars, the excessively large living spaces, the couture handbags, the expensive gadgets, when the most basic instruments of our individual fulfillment are still missing? Chances are your new handbag isn’t an instrument of your happiness – such purchases are usually to appear and feel carefree and stylish but only succeed at imparting the all-important feeling for a few weeks at a time. All of us buy these accepted symbols of career ‘progress’, even though their effects are internally temporary and the alternative is a simple list of things that would actually make us happier.

Money has grown beyond the physical need to become a social lifeblood, keeping us connected, respected, and equal in the eyes of those in our networks. The ability to write instant updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Buzz mean that our circle of friends are more attuned to our lifestyles and that which we spend on. As an example, it is harder to see a Facebook page that shows friends all buying a gadget without being influenced into buying one for yourself. This makes it harder for working professionals to reject the spending that keeps them engaged with their networks but also trapped on the escalator with less to show for it in the long run. The more of these ‘influenced’ purchases we make, the longer we end up trapped having to go to work, when a far greater luxury would be to find our transcendence / retire early / live off our investments. Like crabs, we each fail to escape the bucket due to the presence and pressure of everyone else.

We must resist the temptation to keep increasing the size of the Sisyphean burden around our necks each time our work pushes us a little higher. Focus instead on reducing those flashy purchases that make a minimal difference, and intensifying your pursuit of your own transcendence.

Start tweeting more often about the precious conversation you had the other night or what you felt listening to that song. Tweet less about the things you’re buying. You can begin to change the social experience for the hundreds of people you are connected to, helping them to change the balance of transcendence vs. materialism for themselves… and you can start to make them redefine what is socially important.