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The psychology of money

Updated: Dec 26, 2023


What are we hiding behind our money?
Taormina Giardini, Sicily

'A wise person should have money in their head, but not in their heart.' - Jonathan Swift


I am part of a wider problem of people not talking about their money. It seems people would rather talk about their sex lives than their money. As a psychologist I know that secrets deny other people the benefit of our experience. Moreover leave us 'bearing the agony of an untold story' (Maya Angelou.) So to be part of a positive change I will use this blog to share some of my relationship with money.


My emotions while writing this blog included disgust and excitement. Both at feeling cheapened by a desire for money and at the thought of reducing my desire for money through disclosing that desire. Guilt and shame at having more money than some people. Envy at having less money than some others. As if changing my desire for money, or the amount of money I have, would create a consistently better life. Emotions that suggest the relationship I have with money is complex. I begin by asking what our desire for more money may tell us about what we actually want.


"What's the point of Sainsbury's? ...to keep the scum out of Waitrose." - Stephen Fry


What do we want, when we want more money?


'We're talking greed for money, for land, for material things – and ultimately for control, status, dominance, power. The kind of greed that separates the "haves" from the "have not's' (Ripley, B., & Ward, S., 2023.)


I have at times secretly seen the amount of money I have as an entitlement. A difference, a marker and a permission to transgress. A reinforcement of a fantasy of superiority. A power to make other people do as I want rather than they need. A temptation to enter into a 'grubby business' in other words. I suggest the more money we have the greater the temptation. Plainly put,


'Money is like manure. You have to spread it about or it smells.' - John Paul Getty


I also know when individuals obtain more money other people have relatively less money. A disparity that may disconnect us from other people. An outcome shown to have significant negative health consequences ( see Perry, 2020.) These temptations and documented harms suggest that having more money could become a zero sum game where both parties lose.


'And what are we doing with our money? We make no use of half of our income. My own money buys me nothing but an uneasy conscience (Eliot, 1993.)'


In all these ways, money'money often costs too much (Ralph Waldo Emerson.)' So if having more money, might be too expensive. What about having less money in order to fulfil our desires?


What do we want when we want to less money?


Money can be seen as a responsibility. A burden to act in ways that reflect our relative wealth. Moreover money may provide us with additional choices. Too many choices can be stressful. Money can also encourage an avoidance of necessary but difficult choices in life. For all these reasons, we may fantasise about a 'simpler' life with less money. Glamorise poverty as a purer, or nobler, way to be. However, actually having less money than those around us may leave us in relative poverty. An outcome also known to be detrimental to health (Katikireddi, & Dundas, 2017.)


Alternatively, we may be attracted to the identity of a benefactor giving alms to the poor. A role only available if we actually have more money than we need. Moreover, as George Eliot (1993) suggested 'one must [actually] be poor, to know the luxury of giving!' These ideas, and evidence, suggest that having less money may feel attractive but sometimes is contrary to the goals we want to achieve. What then might be the additional possibilities to having more, or less, money to get what we want?


Diversifying how we get what we want


How could we have the same amount, or less money, while having more of the things we want? Well, money is a promise for future action. A transitional object (or teddy bear) reassuring us about the future, giving us the confidence to explore. Bank notes are often titled 'I promise to pay the bearer.' However, money is not the only way we can obtain promises for future action.


In my experience, promises of future action can also be obtained through secure attachments to other people, interpersonal consistency, a shared sense of fairness and loyalty. Additional means of managing our anxiety about a largely uncertain future. In these ways we could become richer, and healthier, without having a different amount of money.


Money is also a source of power but it is not the only source of power. I would suggest that our emotions, identity and expectations also exercise power over ourselves and other people. Altering our relationships with these experiences could be another way of diluting our dependence on money to obtain and exercise power.


So if we agree that, we cannot all have the purchasing power of millionaires, and that being one comes with significant drawbacks. How much money is enough, too much, or too little for each of us? In the remainder of this blog, I argue that it is our actual needs, rather than our desires, that determines how much money is good enough for any of us.


Identifying what we need rather than what we want


'Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.' - Epictetus


Firstly, can we be honest about what we need, rather than desire? For example, I feel that I need care, attention, shelter, food, freedom and affection. To be fed, stroked, desired and excited. Meeting these needs consistently seems to be only partially related to much money I have. Instead knowing my needs allows me to prioritise meeting them over how much money I have. However, trying to fully meet our needs is only likely to be partially successful.


In my experience, we cannot totally compensate for our needs not being met in the past. Leaving us with a feeling of deficit. I wonder then, could we instead, learn to grieve our unmet needs. Accepting we will not always get what we need. Learn to enjoy wishing for wishes sake. Enjoying the wanting without having. Whilst adding effective grieving to our list of needs. Finally I reflect on the experience of sharing part of my relationship with money.


Reflection


'Too many people spend money they earned...to buy things they don't want..to impress people that they don't like.' - Will Rogers


In this blog I have shared part of my complicated relationship with my money. How it fits with what I see as a problem of not talking about our money. In doing so I have experienced, and contained, uncomfortable and pleasurable emotions. Identified alternative strategies to getting my wants and needs met. Including enjoying wanting something without having it. In doing so, I have placed my relationship with money in new helpful psychological and emotional containers. A useful exercise for me and hopefully for you too. I thank you for reading about my experience and I wonder about yours?


References


Eliot, G. (1993). Middlemarch. Wordsworth Editions.


Katikireddi, S. V., & Dundas, R. (2017). Relative poverty still matters. The Lancet Public Health, 2(3), e126-e127. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(17)30029-4/fulltext


Phillips, A., (2013). The analyst & the bribe, video recording of paper delivered to the BCLA, retrieved: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8wGZt-4ASg


Perry, A., (2020). A matter of life and death, retrieved : https://www.drandrewperry.org/post/a-matter-of-life-and-death


Ripley, B., & Ward, S., (2023). Greed, Seven Deadly Psychologies, (BBC Radio 4.)


n.b. I have also collated a list of other free resources on general health I have found helpful. You can find them here : CLICK HERE

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