Money and Meaning

by | Jun 13, 2008 | Weekly Column

fpa-2008.jpgCan money give meaning to your life?

I was one of a group of financial planners who explored that question during a session at the recent FPA Retreat in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Our speaker was Jacob Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of several books, including Money and the Meaning of Life (Doubleday Business, 1994).

To answer the question, we need to understand that money is inherently a social agreement. Money is whatever a particular society decides it is. In the United States, we have agreed that money is the dollar, represented by various denominations of coins and pieces of paper with certain designs and colors. In Europe, those various coins and pieces of paper represent the Euro. In past societies, money has been represented by many things, including salt, beads, gold, silver, tobacco, and shells.

When we understand that money is a social agreement, represented by an inanimate object, it’s fairly easy to conclude that money by itself is incapable of giving meaning to our lives. As Dr. Needleman wrote, “It is impossible to obtain meaning from that which is incapable of giving meaning in the first place.”

However, while money in itself will not give meaning, there is very little likelihood that we will find meaning in our lives without it. The purpose of money is to serve and support the search for meaning in our lives. Dr. Needleman told us in his talk, “We must take money more seriously.”jacob-needleman.jpg

Dr. Needleman’s world view around money and the meaning of life is fairly straightforward. He contends that humans are hardwired with two general conditions, the need to survive and the quest for meaning. The need to survive is represented by our physical needs such as food, shelter, clothing, health, and work. The quest for meaning is represented by our yearning for truth, enlightenment, love, service to others, and the divine.

His studies lead him to conclude that our material needs have to be satisfied before we can ultimately satisfy the quest for meaning. The bridge between these two conditions is money. Dr. Needleman says money is a modern medium that touches everything we do and organizes the physical side of our existence. Therefore, good money skills are necessary to insure that money will support our quest for meaning. Without those skills, the quest is much more difficult, if not impossible.

Dr. Needleman told his audience, “As a profession, you have discovered an area that is really special. You perform very close to a spiritual work.” He added, “I never dreamed the foundation of this quest for meaning in life would be found in the profession of financial planning.”

Dr. Needleman suggested in his talk that one of the first places to begin building good money skills is to examine all the opinions you have about money. He compared our beliefs about money to an antiques store, where occasionally you find a priceless treasure, but which most often is filled with junk. He contends that we need to open the contents of our minds and examine our opinions and beliefs about money, asking each one “How did you get in here?” That concept was excitingly familiar to me, given the work I do to help clients uncover their “Money Scripts.”

george-kinder.jpgAnd even philosophers, it appears, have undiscovered money scripts. Near the end of the presentation, moderator George Kinder asked Dr. Needleman if he had a financial planner. He did not. Kinder asked him why. “I never thought of it until this moment,” he said. Pausing to reflect, he continued, “Now that I think of it, it makes perfect sense that I should.”

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