Money, Careers and Contentment

Address to the Commencement Dinner of Bruce Hall, ANU, 21 March 2003
Dr Clive Hamilton
Executive Director, The Australia Institute

I would like to start on a sombre note. You may have read in the last two days about a young American woman, Rachel Corrie, who left her university studies to go to the Middle East to try to do something for peace and justice in the world. She stood in front of an Israeli army bulldozer to prevent it from demolishing some Palestinian homes. The bulldozer ran over her and then reversed over her. She died.

Rachel Corrie gave her life for peace. There can be no greater commitment to the greater good than giving your life. So we should take a moment to reflect, for as long as we remember her sacrifice, Rachel Corrie’s death will not have been in vain. I wish I had her courage.


Those of you starting out at university this year – and indeed those of you who have already been here for a year or two – need to make perhaps the most important decision of your life: Is your time at university going to be devoted to turning yourself into a better person or into a more saleable commodity? Is your objective to live a worthwhile life, or are you just going to go after the money?

It’s a harsh way to put it. Of course, most people immediately say “I’ll take the money”. But on reflection, most concede that, if they had to choose, they would rather be happy. It turns out that we are forced to choose. So what is it to be: A rich life, or a life of riches?

There are tremendous pressures on young people to turn themselves into commodities for sale in the labour market. And there are heavy pressures to measure your success in life by the amount of money you have, the size and location of your house and whether you have a home theatre, flash car and the trappings of consumerism.

The cultivation of the intellect for its own sake is viewed as wasteful, even decadent.

Recently, I received a letter from a student completing honours in Classical Greek at the University of Sydney. After gaining a TER of 98.9, the consistent message she receives is that she is wasting her time studying Classical Greek. People are saying to her: “it’s all very well to indulge in the humanities while [you are] young” but sooner or later she will have to do something “practical”.

She has not relented, believing that her education has shaped who she is and allowed her, as she put it, “the intellectual stimulation and space to explore all sorts of aspects of being human”. Some of her friends who opted for more “practical” subjects have, unfortunately, “become arrogant instead of humbled by their great debt to past geniuses and civilisations”.

So young people are told that they should not “waste” their high TERs or UAIs on a subject that requires a lower TER. Of course, entrance scores are determined largely by student demand for a course – which is often driven by fads – so if you are enrolled in something simply because you had the marks to get in then your life course has been determined by the herd, and you should change your enrollment before it’s too late.

If you want to do well at university the most important decision is to study something that you find stimulating.

For those of you who have decided that the main goal in life is to make as much money as you can, I have some bad news. The chances are you are headed for a life of discontent, and there is a pile of empirical evidence to prove it.

In a series of studies, psychologists Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan distinguish between two sets of personal goals or beliefs about the sources of happiness. The first is the belief that the path to happiness lies in the pursuit of the external goals of wealth, fame and physical attractiveness. Clearly, this is the modern image of consumer society and career success with which we are bombarded every day. Television shows like ‘Joe Millionaire’ exploit this belief ruthlessly.

The second is that happiness grows from striving for intrinsic goals − deeper relationships, personal growth and contributing to the community.

After classifying individuals according to whether they pursue extrinsic goals or intrinsic goals, the researchers then ask which group is happier. The conclusion is unambiguous.

Individuals oriented towards materialistic, extrinsic goals are more likely to experience lower quality of life than individuals oriented toward intrinsic goals.

But the news gets worse. Not only are those with external, material orientation in life less happy than those with intrinsic goals, but they make others less happy too.

Extrinsically oriented individuals are shown to have shorter, more conflictual, and more competitive relationships with others …

In sum, the pursuit of personal goals for money, fame and attractiveness is shown to lead to a lower quality of life than the goals of relatedness, self-acceptance and community feeling.

Bummer. Yet these studies only confirm what many people know intuitively − that the goals of wealth, fame and attractiveness are hollow.

Other studies show that people who are driven by external rewards tend to be more depressed than others, and they suffer from higher levels of psychological disturbance.

On the other hand, those who have intrinsic goals focussed on closer relationships, self betterment and helping others improve their levels of well-being as they attain their goals.

The results strongly suggest that the more our media, advertisers and opinion makers emphasise financial success as the chief means to happiness, the more they promote social pathologies. This is why the researchers I have quoted give their papers titles such as ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ and ‘The Dark Side of the American Dream’.

This research raises the question of whether richer people are happier than poorer ones. We know quite a lot about this. In the USA, there is virtually no difference in reported life satisfaction between people with incomes of $20,000 and $80,000.

At the national level, if more income results in more happiness we would expect a growing nation to report increasing levels of life satisfaction over time. In the USA, consistent surveys show that levels of reported life satisfaction have not changed since the 1950s despite a trebling of incomes per person. The same applies in Australia.

The conclusion is profoundly subversive but inescapable: beyond a certain point, increased income does not result in any increase in well-being, and the national obsession with economic growth diverts us from the things that truly will improve the quality of life.

Yet we live in an era characterised by affluenza, defined as follows.

Af-flu-en-za n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream.

A ‘clinical definition’ of the condition has been provided by one psychotherapist:

The collective addictions, character flaws, psychological wounds, neuroses, and behavioral disorders caused or exacerbated by the presence of, or desire for money/wealth.

Money hunger is widely understood at an intuitive level. We can all see the madness of our insatiable desire to keep on consuming. For example, we want bigger and bigger houses – trophy homes or McMansions.

Despite the fact that the average size of households has fallen steadily over the last 30 years the size of houses has grown rapidly. The amount of space for each occupant in a new house has more than doubled since the early 1970s. And of course, bigger houses have to be filled with more expensive appliances and fitted with more luxurious furnishings and accessories such as home theatres and outdoor kitchens (they used to be called barbeques). But are we any happier floating around in these oversized houses?

Cosmetic surgery is another form of luxury consumption that has been booming. Cosmetic procedures are now commonly given as Christmas or 21st birthday presents.

For example, a breast augmentation costs $7,000 and the gift voucher comes with a swimsuit in the desired cup size so that, as one commentator put it, the ‘husband has something other than the gift voucher to put under the tree’.

And I notice that the latest craze in the US is a bottom augmentation. Maybe that’s appropriate for a society that puts so much emphasis on kicking butt.

So we live in an era of overconsumption. People are unwilling to save for these things nowadays. They want it now and go into debt to get it. So we might say …

Consumption today consists of people spending money they don’t own, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.

It has sometimes been observed that, no matter how wealthy people are, they believe they need more money to be happy. A Newspoll survey commissioned by my Institute found that nearly two-thirds of Australians believe that they cannot afford to buy everything they really need.

When we consider that Australia is one of the world’s richest countries, and that Australians today have incomes three times higher than in 1950, it is remarkable that such a high proportion feel their incomes are inadequate.

It is even more remarkable that almost half of the richest households in Australia (with incomes over $70,000 a year) say they cannot afford to buy everything they really need. We call them the ‘suffering rich’.

As the American comedienne Lily Tomlin said: “The trouble with the rat race is that, even if you win, you are still a rat.”

Our political system actively promotes the rat race. Politicians and newspaper columnists just assume that the prime objective of governments is to keep the economy growing as fast as possible, and to capture votes by promising people more money.

When John Howard came to office in 1996 he said that the success or otherwise of his Prime Ministership will be judged by whether he can sustain a growth rate of 4%.

But what does it take to live a happy life?

We all have an inkling of what it takes. Popular folklore has always know it from “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul” to the Beatles “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”.

So this Commencement seems an opportune time to invite you to imagine yourself at age 75, looking back over your life, and asking yourself what it was in your life that was truly fulfilling, or what it was that you could have done but sacrificed for other things.

Some researchers have sifted through the vast number of studies designed to find out what separates happy people from unhappy people. There is one factor that stands out above all others – it’s not how cleverness, health, marriage, career success, extroversion … and it’s not how much money you have. “A sense of meaning and purpose is the single attitude most strongly associated with life satisfaction”.

The psychological research confirms in an academic way what the great sages have been telling us for centuries. It is the secret of life: the path to a rich and fulfilled life lies in devoting ourselves to a higher cause, to others.

Put the other way around, the more we concentrate on our own circumstances − the more we pursue the extrinsic goals of wealth, celebrity and sexual conquest − the more unhappy and meaningless our lives will be.

But our culture is built on the pursuit of happiness through material acquisition. We envy the rich for their wealth and apparent freedom and glamorous lifestyles, yet we know at a deeper level that they, like Faust who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly success, have probably sacrificed what is truly valuable. As Goethe wrote:

In vain I gathered human treasure, And all that mortal spirit could digest: I come at last to recognise my measure, And know the sterile desert in my breast.1

So the path to a fulfilling life is an enigma. As one Hindu sage said: “To get what you want, you first have to give up wanting.”

One of the more contemporary sages, Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist, when asked by his students what they should do with their lives would say “Follow your bliss”. By this he meant that there is something in the world that you are perfectly suited for, an occupation or calling that feels exactly right for each person. The difficulty of course is in finding what your bliss is. It may take a couple of decades, and it may not be much consolation to realise when you have found it that the ‘wasted’ decades that led to it were in fact necessary parts of the journey.

Bliss is a strong word, and in some ways an unfortunate one. It doesn’t mean that when you have found your niche then life will be blissful, at least not on the day-to-day plane. All lives are full of struggle and pain, and uncertainty. They are never blissful, except fleetingly. But there is a deeper level at which contentment does flow from finding one’s bliss; it is a sense that one has found one’s place in the world.

Over the last decade or two many people, especially younger ones, have found their purpose in life, their bliss, by devoting themselves to the protection of the natural environment. I know quite a few people in the international environment movement who are extraordinarily capable, clever and effective people who could easily go to the very top of the corporate tree.

Yet they earn maybe $30-40,000 a year. They decided to devote their lives to a higher cause. Others are now committing themselves to helping the world find peace. Whether they succeed or not, they will have devoted themselves to something noble.

When they and their friends at university who took the other path, and spent a life scrambling up the corporate tree, look back at age 75, I think we all know who will be more contented.

So that’s the big secret. What’s it to be: Money, sex and celebrity, or inner contentment. A rich life or a life of riches?

I wish I’d understood this when I was in my twenties; it would have avoided a lot of struggle, anguish and disappointment. But, to be honest, if I had heard this advice at age 20 or 25 I would have thought ‘What a load of rubbish’.

So for tonight, at least, maybe the pleasures of the flesh are more appealing. But when you wake up tomorrow with a hangover, ask yourself how the rest of your life is likely to play out. It’s a pretty big question.


1 Johann Goethe, Faust, Part 1, p. 91 (Penguin 1949)





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