Even if we have a lot of money in the bank, we can die very easily from our suffering. So, investing in a friend, making a friend into a real friend, building a community of friends, is a much better source of security. We will have someone to lean on, to come to, during our difficult moments.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step
When I read this I was skeptical. Really? Investing in friends is a much better source of security than money?
Money has been a concern my entire adult life. Whether working a corporate job or running my own business, I’ve always felt pressure to make more money for retirement, a family and financial independence. Add to that the social pressure of making less than my peers and my parents belittling me about my savings, and you can see why I have always seen money – not relationships – as the primary source of security.
Five close friends would be nice to have… but five million dollars? Now that’s security!
Yet after achieving my highest income ever in 2017, I felt isolated, lost and anxious – the exact opposite of Merriam-Webster’s definition of security: “the state of feeling safe, stable, and free from fear or anxiety.” How could this be?
Maybe Thich Nhat Hanh was right, and my bet on money for security was wrong. This post is my attempt to answer the money versus friends question.
Investing in money or friends is a false dichotomy – of course we should invest in both. But if you had to choose between a high paying job where you hate your colleagues and a lower paying job where you love your colleagues, which should you prioritize? Which would give you more security?
I define security as living a long, healthy, happy life. What will make me feel safe, stable and free from fear or anxiety now and in the future?
Money Leads to More Life Satisfaction
The Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, pioneered in 1965, has been used by a wide variety of researchers in more than 150 countries to assess well-being.
Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.
- On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
- On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now?
Research across the world indicates substantial correlations between the Cantril Scale and income. Gallup formed three statistically relevant and distinct groups to help explain results: “thriving” (life evaluations of 7 and above), “struggling” (5-6), and “suffering” (4 and below). The percentage “thriving” across countries correlates highly with Per-Capita GDP (PPP), and the percent “suffering” correlates highly with other measures of poverty. Respondents with lower incomes were more likely to report lacking food and shelter, having physical pain, stress, worry sadness and anger. For example, the percent “suffering” is less than 1% in Denmark and 40% in Zimbabwe.
Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have compared well-being across countries, across several different surveys, and found that there is no satiation point beyond which money doesn’t increase subjective well-being. This strong relationship between income and subjective well-being holds for both rich and poor countries
While other well-known studies have pointed to a satiation point of income in increasing life evaluation and emotional well-being, it remains clear that up to those points, income is correlated with well being.
More money – and living in richer, more developed countries – seems to be a surefire way to achieve security.
From my experience, it’s hard to do anything if my basic needs aren’t met. Money is the easiest way to secure food, shelter and health care. If I’m starving, unemployed, or face an emergency, money gives me security. Close friends are lifelines too, but they aren’t always around. Money seems a safer alternative than friends when my basic needs are challenged.
Financial Independence Can Also Lead to Isolation
I spent five years building a location-independent business so that I could work when I wanted to, where I wanted to.
Ironically, it was when I had my highest earning months that I was the closest to depression. I would work online, alone in cafes all day, and return to an empty apartment. I depended on no one and no one depended on me. Sometimes I would go a week without meeting anyone.
Two of my best friends had left Saigon. And my other close friends were occupied with building their businesses too. I didn’t try to get closer to acquaintances in my salsa and basketball communities. My weekends out became weekends in.
I could travel anywhere, but tired of traveling alone. I could work anywhere, but cringed at the thought of rebuilding life in another country. I had achieved digital nomad nirvana but found myself asking, what for?
Filmmaker and anthropologist Sebastian Junger sums this up beautifully in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:
According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. A 2006 study comparing depression rates in Nigeria to depression rates in North America found that across the board, women in rural areas were less likely to get depressed than their urban counterparts. And urban North American women—the most affluent demographic of the study—were the most likely to experience depression.
The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant poverty comes with its own stresses—and certainly isn’t the American ideal—but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.
Junger argues that humans have evolved over millions of years through group survival, especially to share food and for self-defense. For the first time in history our money system allows us survive independently without a community, but the lived experience runs counter to our genetic programming. I had invested everything into my business, which provided income and freedom. But who was I helping to feed and defend? No one. Despite my success, I had never felt more lonely.
Investing in Relationships
Many studies show that relationships are central to emotional wellness and longevity.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the longest running studies on adult life, tracking 724 poor and privileged men since they were teenagers in 1938 – over 80 years ago! Every two years these men were asked questions about their lives and mental and emotional wellness.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the study. “Our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with community.”
The study found that close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Relationships protect people from hardship, help delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or genes.
The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.
George Valliant, Director, Harvard Study of Adult Development (1972-2004)
Researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy B. Smith sought to determine the extent to which social relationships influence mortality risk, and which aspects of social relationships matter most. After looking at multiple studies across 308,849 individuals, they concluded that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of having stronger social relationships is comparable with quitting smoking and exceeds other risk factors for mortality such as obesity and physical inactivity. They identified close relationships (i.e. having friends you know will support you in bad times) and social integration (i.e. interactions with people as you move through your day) as important predictors of longevity.
Blue Zone’s Dan Buettner found that the world’s longest lived, happiest people prioritize relationships, through belonging to faith based communities, putting loved ones first, and choosing social circles that support healthy behaviors.
One of my favorite examples from Blue Zones is the Okinawan concept of “moai:” a small group of lifelong friends. Moais start in childhood and extend into the 100s. Forming a second family, moai members meet regularly and support each other socially and financially. As one 77-year old moai member shared, “Each member knows that her friends count on her as much as she counts on her friends. If you get sick or a spouse dies or if you run out of money, we know someone will step in and help. It’s much easier to go through life knowing there is a safety net.”
Finally, two of the five regrets of the dying point towards less work and more relationships.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
We all want money and relationships. No one wants to be poor with no friends. The real question is whether you’d take less money for better relationships or sacrifice close relationships for more money.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development, Blue Zone study, and our evolutionary history would point to leaning on relationships for a longer, healthier and happier life. We have evolved by depending on relationships; without contributing to a tribe we wither.
Yet the Cantril Scale and other studies of income’s relationship to well-being point towards the opposite – that money provides for our basic needs, and that across the world, people with more money feel more secure about their future.
Perhaps more practical would be to think through when you have to make tradeoffs between money and relationships.
- Personal – what amount of money do you need to feel secure? What relationships and communities give you security? Which investments should you prioritize now to return more health, more happiness, more well-being?
- Friends – are you prioritizing friendships with the rich, famous and powerful? Or friendships with those you can count on in tough times? Are you investing in friends with healthy physical, emotional, and spiritual habits?
- Family – are you investing in a moai? This could be family or an adopted family. Instead of putting more money into savings, could you invest it in a moai member going through hardship? And if loved ones and stocks are competing for attention, which do you prioritize?
- Workplace – is your priority fame and fortune or relationships and value? Would you take a paycut to work with colleagues and customers you enjoy? What investments can you make to build great relationships at work?
- Community – which communities feed and protect what is sacred to you? Do you prioritize them with your time, money and attention? How can you feed and protect those communities?
From my experience with location independence and reflecting on each day, I’ve learned that if I have to make a tradeoff, I should invest in relationships. Relationships are likelier to help me feel happier, healthier and live longer.
Below is a checklist for auditing your investments in friends. I try to cultivate these relationships before I need anything:
- Friend(s) you can count on in emergency:
- Friend(s) you can share your deepest struggles and joys:
- Which three people do you spend the most time? Do their habits make you happier and healthier? If not, with whom should you spend more time?
- Moai(s) that feeds and protects you:
- Community(s) that feeds and protects you spiritually, emotionally or physically:
What Does Security Look Like to You?
My mind goes to the scenes of financial planning commercials. A montage of falling in love, buying a house, sending a kid to college, living to a golden age, and of course, meeting an advisor in a suit. It ends with the man looking back on life fulfilled. He provided for his family. The message? Security is being wise with your finances.
Security is never portrayed as having a close circle of friends, healthy lifestyle, and everyday purpose within a community. But most research points to precisely these things for a happy, healthy, long life. Imagine these scenes instead: visiting a friend at the hospital, walking in nature with a loved one, babysitting a grandkid, building a school. A fulfilling and secure life comes from prioritizing loved ones and community.
What does security feel like to you? To invest now in your future best self, where should you put your time and your energy?
We have to think of friends and community as investments, as our most important assets. They can comfort us and help us in difficult times, and they can share our joy and happiness.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step