Words of Wealth

    Written in 2004

    There’s a story I once heard about a fisherman and a tourist. The tourist comes across the fisherman dozing one afternoon on the beach by his boat and asks, “Why are you sleeping?”

    “Because I’m done fishing for the day,” replies the fisherman.

    “But,” says the tourist, “if you fished all day, you could make more money. And then you could buy a second boat and hire workers and catch even more fish. And then,” – the tourist is getting more and more excited as he speaks – “you could buy a whole fleet of boats, and a processing plant, and maybe even start a chain of seafood restaurants!”

    “Why would I want to do that?” asks the fisherman.

    “Because then you’d be rich and could do whatever you wanted!” exclaims the tourist triumphantly.

    “I’m already doing that,” says the fisherman, pulling the brim of his hat back over his face.

    I like this story because it reminds me that there’s more than one way to be wealthy. For a speaker of English like myself, at least, that’s a useful reminder, for my language betrays a peculiar cultural bias when it comes to defining “rich” and its synonyms. A quick look at the first meanings of the following words in the Oxford English Dictionary will illustrate my point:

    • rich: having a great deal of money or assets
    • wealthy: having a great deal of money, resources, or assets
    • affluent: having a great deal of money
    • prosperous: successful in material terms
    • profit: a financial gain
    • treasure: a quantity of precious metals, gems, or other valuable objects

    It’s no surprise that we should have many words to describe well-being. But it is surprising that the first meanings of many of those words all refer to one thing: material wealth. What this says about our beliefs is clear: the best thing that can happen to us is money.

    But if we dig a little deeper, past the first meanings, we find buried treasure of a different kind. We can, for instance, be “rich in ideas”, “profit from experience”, or “treasure a friendship”. Even “wealth” itself has origins that go far beyond the kind of financial success we usually associate with the word. It comes from the same root as the adverb “well” – the “th” added the same way it is to “heal”, forming “health”. If “health” is the condition of being healed, then wealth, rightly, is the condition of being well.

    “Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth,” said the Buddha. Of course, somewhere deep down we all know that to be true. Yet we still follow the rainbow of material riches in the hopes that it will lead us to a pot o’ gold of contentment. But the truth – obscured by a lexicon that overemphasizes monetary wealth – is that the correlation between money and contentment is weak at best, and may even be negative at times.

    Ronald Inglehart, a professor of sociology at the university of Michigan, has headed up a number of studies with the World Values Survey that measure people’s “subjective well-being” – meaning how happy and contented individuals feel themselves to be. He has found that, as people begin their climb up the first few rungs of the economic ladder, their contentment level rises correspondingly. But once their income reaches about US$13 000, further increases have no significant effect on contentment. It would seem that, after our basic needs have been met, money can’t buy us any more happiness. These findings are consistent with others, such as David G. Myers’ revelation in his book The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty that, from the mid-1950’s to the mid-1990’s, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” slightly decreased from 35% to 32%, despite a doubling of per capita income.

    I asked a few friends and family to define wealth for me. One mentioned money, one mentioned freedom, and the other two both referred to the kind of material sufficiency that Inglehart found was so vital to contentment. “I feel that if I have enough to live comfortably,” said my grandma, “I’m wealthy.”

    Benjamin Franklin came up with this definition for a rich person: “He that is content.” He then cynically added, “Who is that? Nobody.” While that sentiment may often seem accurate, I think our best chance for contentment may lie in the recognition that we’re already filthy rich. Think of the infinitesimal chance of your birth; the eons of evolution that have given you the best brain nature offers and the senses to enjoy the world; the sun that beams down trillions of watts of free energy day after day and the millions of species that sustain life on earth; the millennia of culture that have woven a rich tapestry around the planet and the accumulated wisdom and technology of thousands of generations; the love of your family and friends.

    Chasing money – a little bit of it – is just one way to increase our wealth. But to truly become a millionaire, perhaps the best way is to recognize the millions of gifts that exist in and around us every day, and accept the wealth that can never be bought but is always offered for free. Just like the fisherman.