Acton Institute Powerblog

Wealth, Envy, and Happiness

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In the modern classic Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, asks Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday why the sinister Johnny Ringo is so evil: “What makes a man like Ringo, Doc? What makes him do the things he does?”

Doc’s memorable answer is, “A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.” This echoes, I think, the famous line about human beings addressed to God in Augustine’s Confessions, that “thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”

The popular rock band Aerosmith put it this way in their 1997 song, “Hole In My Soul”: “There’s a hole in my soul / That’s been killing me forever / It’s a place where a garden never grows.”

The Bible talks at great length about the quest for meaning apart from God. Indeed, the entire book of Ecclesiastes seems to be devoted to this topic. Some, as in the Aerosmith tune, attempt to fill the hole through romantic love. Others, like Johnny Ringo, seek to fill in the God-shaped hole through robbery, rape, and murder. Indeed, one of the most common substitutes for God is money, which is in part why Jesus warns us against this specific temptation.

The prophet Ezekiel describes the voracious appetite of the wicked foe: “He is as greedy as the grave / and like death is never satisfied.” But greed is not a vice simply of our foes or enemies; we are all tempted by this natively human sin.

It is greed, or “money envy,” I think which is in large part behind what many sociological studies are telling us about wealth and happiness. (In case you weren’t aware, the study of happiness, or “subjective well-being,” is a burgeoning academic field. See, for example, the Journal of Happiness Studies inaugurated in 2000.)

This article by finance columnist Laura Rowley, “Keeping Up with the Joneses Can Put You Behind,” (HT: Lifehacker via notes that “Andrew Oswald of England’s Warwick University and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College found that even if our incomes are rising, we tend to become less happy if the incomes of others are increasing more.”

Other sociologists have argued that “in evaluating their own incomes, individuals compare themselves to their peers of the same age. Therefore a person’s reported level of happiness depends on how his or her income compares to others in the same age group.”

This natural tendency to compare our financial status to others is an expression of money envy, which also finds expression, at least in part, in the concern about income disparities. Oftentimes, it isn’t enough for us to be happy or satisfied with our standard of living, even if it has improved over time, if others are relatively better well-off. Check out this interview with Rob Moll, who says that in the process of working on his CT article on suburban spirituality, “it hit me how much we live our lives in relation to what others have.”

Rowley’s piece includes tips on how to avoid so-called “money envy,” such as the need to “figure out our purpose, identify what we love and value most, and make our money obey our values by setting specific financial goals. Because if we achieve the things we value most, we’ll be less riveted by what the neighbors are doing.”

Some of these practical tips should be quite helpful. But any long-term and comprehensive solution needs to recognize that the problem is, at root, spiritual. The solution therefore needs to be spiritual, and is, in short, captured in two words: mortification and vivification, or “dying to self” and “rising to Christ.”

Update: Check out Arnold Kling’s somewhat related post over at EconLog, “Envy, Happiness, and Social Policy.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.