Part Five of a Series on The Tempting Ten Wallow Words
(Click to read Parts One, Two, Three, or Four)


How much land does a man need? Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story with this title about Pahom, a peasant farmer who was given a chance for free land. Carrying a spade, he had to pace out the land in a large circuit starting from any spot. He was to dig holes to indicate corners or boundaries. But “before the sun sets you must return to the place you started from.”

Pahom eagerly started out at the crack of dawn. Most of the land was very fertile. It was filled with hills, dales, streams, and marshes. He traced a circuitous route around the very best land. Late in the day, he realized that his greed had taken him very far from his starting point. So, he began a desperate race with the setting sun to get back to where he started.

With his distant finish line in sight and the sun fast disappearing, Pahom ran the last mile at top speed. He collapsed at his starting point just as the sun set. He made it! His servant came to help him up. He found blood flowing from Pahom’s mouth. “Pahom was dead…his servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”


How Much is Enough?

Research shows the truth of the cliché “money doesn’t buy happiness.” The explosion in happiness studies over the last two decades (I’ve written over 100 blogs, articles, and book reviews on happiness) shows that despite dramatically rising standards of living in Western countries, levels of happiness have not increased. In some cases, they’ve decreased as stress levels from jogging ever faster on the hedonic treadmill increases.

This month, yet another study on money and happiness in The Globe & Mail asked, “Americans are richer than Canadians and Europeans — so why aren’t they happier?” John Rapley, political economist at the University of Cambridge, notes, “Mainstream economic theory presumes humans to be utility maximizers — or, as a colleague of mine once put it rather crudely, people want more stuff, and the more stuff they have, the happier they are. But while the assumption that more money equals more utility is treated as canonical in mainstream economic theory, there’s surprisingly little evidence for the belief.”

In her article, “Don’t worry, be happy…or not,” reporter Lynda Hurst wrote about a study surveying people on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans and the Masai people of East Africa. Researchers found almost equal satisfaction reported by both groups. The Masai have no electricity or running water and live in dung huts. The researchers concluded, “…economic development and personal income must not account for the happiness they are so often linked to.”

The pursuit of owning ever more stuff too often leads to our stuff owning us.


That’s Rich. How Do You Define Wealth?

Happiness research is causing a reassessment of whether economic growth should be the ultimate goal of society. Economist, John Rapley concludes, “Some of the most reliable predictors of contentment, such as happy family life, bear at most only a partial relationship to income. And you just have to scan the self-help section of any bookstore to realize that the secret of human well-being remains very much a live topic.”

Poverty — especially if others around us are doing much better — causes unhappiness. But once our physical and financial needs are adequately met, loving relationships, good health, helping others, spiritual beliefs, community involvement, a clean environment, connections to nature, living our values and strengths, fulfilling work, and a sense of positive contribution to our world are much stronger happiness factors.


Three Core Questions: What Really Matters?

Pursuing a rich life that might include, but goes beyond, material wealth means clarifying our core values and setting life priorities. Our values are what we value. This is our sense of what’s most, through to what’s least, important to us.

We’ve long used these three core questions to provide focus and clarity for our family, businesses, and coaching others:

  • Where are we going (our picture of our preferred future or outcome)?
  • What do we believe in (our guiding values or principles)?
  • Why do we exist (our reason for being, mission, or purpose)?

These aren’t in any order. You can start and finish anywhere. Like a triple yin yang symbol, they blend and blur into each other.


A PERMA Foundation for a Life of Riches

The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has spent decades studying why “in spite of the tripling of real purchasing power in the last fifty years, life satisfaction has not budged and depression is ten times more common now.” He concludes, “I believe we have squandered our wealth on the wrong sort of stuff, that we have engaged as a nation in ‘bad consumerism.’ We have used our wealth to buy more positive emotion. Positive emotion is like French Vanilla ice cream. The very first bite is great but by the sixth bite it tastes like cardboard (and we keep eating anyway).”

Seligman and his research colleagues developed a much more meaningful and broader framework for non-financial wealth management. The PERMA model emerged from their research, showing the key factors contributing to living the richest, most fulfilling life:

Positive Emotion — happiness and life satisfaction are moved from being the end goals to factors of well-being.

Engagement — when we’re in this state of “flow,” time flies by as thoughts and feelings are often absent. We then look back later at just how fun or rewarding the activity was.

Relationships — acts of kindness, connecting with others, and sharing laughter, joy, pride, or purpose provide deep and lasting feelings of well-being.

Meaning — feeling we’re part of something much bigger or serving a greater purpose than ourselves.

Accomplishment — goals such as money, fame, winning, or mastery that we pursue for their own sake, whether or not they bring positive emotion, stronger relationships, or meaning.

How we define and pursue our personal definition of wealth determines our satisfaction and just how rich we are.