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It's Better To Be Wealthy And Healthy Than Poor And Ill

Rainer Zitelmann 24 August 2022

It's Better To Be Wealthy And Healthy Than Poor And Ill

The author of this commentary poses the following question: If being rich is so terrible, why do hundreds of millions of people around the world regularly play the lottery? Why are there so many books, YouTube videos, seminars, etc. on how to get rich?

Rainer Zitelmann (pictured), a Germany-based entrepreneur, writer and academic who has analyzed public views about wealth, inequality and success, is unashamed to press the case for free enterprise. In this article, he examines the sometimes-hostile attitudes towards wealth and points out how strange these must appear when poverty and illness have often been the standard lot of humankind. The editors of this news service are happy to share these views and invite responses. The usual editorial disclaimers apply. Jump into the conversation! Email

For over a month, nobody knew which German had won the €23.2-million ($23.0 million) Lotto jackpot. According to the lottery company, the winner had been in a state of shock since the winning numbers were announced. He had delayed collecting his winnings, he said, because he first needed some time to process what so much money would mean to him. “In fact, I briefly weighed up whether I should even collect this large sum and whether I really wanted to change my life,” said the winner from Potsdam (near Berlin). In the end, he decided to collect his prize.

Two days later, a well-known journalist wrote a letter to the winner in Germany’s leading tabloid newspaper (Bild): "You’ve decided that it is better to be rich. I disagree. Wealth does not equate to happiness. Rich people get cancer just like poor people. Rich people get divorced and fight with their spouses. Rich people get stomach ulcers because they worry about holding on to their money. Rich people are afraid of covetous glances of the envious.”

If being rich is so terrible, why do hundreds of millions of people around the world regularly play the lottery? Why are there so many books, YouTube videos, seminars, etc. on how to get rich?

The rich live longer and are healthier
Of course, rich people can also get ill. But the saying “It’s better to be poor and healthy than rich and ill” is misleading. A study from the US shows that the difference in life expectancy between the poorest and richest one per cent of the income distribution was nearly 15 years for men and 10 years for women. While rich men lived to an average of 87.3 years, the poor lived to 72.7 years.

Even a little more money leads to better health. In her dissertation on “Reichtum in Deutschland” (“Wealth in Germany”), researcher Dorothee Spannagel investigated what it is that people worry about. The total population was compared with people who earn at least two and three times as much as the average citizen. The result: 22.8 per cent of the total population were “very worried” about their own health, compared with only 10.2 per cent of the higher earners. The researcher came to the clear conclusion: “The comparison with the state of health in the overall population can be summarized succinctly: As wealth increases, the proportion of people in good health grows.” The results of these surveys clearly show that the rich, compared with the overall population, “not only enjoy a better state of health, they are also more satisfied with the shape they are in.”

Yet poor health is by no means a direct consequence of a lack of money. People with a lower socio-economic status are much more likely to experience ill health than other people, but this is not the result of economic hardship but of a certain way of life. The reason is not so much to be found in the external conditions of life, but in people’s behavior: smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, unhealthy food, and lack of exercise. And none of this has anything to do with money: smoking for a month is more expensive than the monthly fee for an exclusive gym; eating fast food is more expensive than cooking for yourself; alcohol is more expensive than home-squeezed orange juice. Overall, living an unhealthy life is more expensive than living a healthy life.

The topic of money leads to marital strife
Does money make you unhappy? Or is it rather the lack of money that makes you unhappy? Arguments over money play a major role in every divorce, but researchers found that money is also a major point of contention in relationships. 

Lauren Papp of the University of Wisconsin asked 100 couples with children to keep a diary over two weeks. In it, men and women were asked to note down separately which topics caused disputes during each day, how long each dispute lasted and what it was about. The result: there was no other topic couples argued about as tenaciously and persistently as money. Most of the couples felt that disputes about money threatened their joint future, and with no other source of conflict did the couples find it so difficult to find a solution?

Business psychologist Erich Kirchler from the University of Vienna analyzed what it is married couples talk about and what they argue about. To do this, he had 40 couples keep a diary for a year. Finances were the most conflict-charged topics of all. The couples argued repeatedly about what to spend money on and how much money to spend.

Conduct the following experiment yourself: for one month, write down everything you worry about. This can be anything: your job, your health, raising children, finances, partnership, body weight, etc. After a month, evaluate. How many of these problems would not have occurred if you had ten million dollars? You will see that there were quite a few worries that you would have been spared. But you will also see that there are many worries that you would have had even with so many millions. For these worries, write down whether they would have been easier to bear or whether the difficulties associated with them could have been better solved if you had significantly more money.

Money alone does not make you happy?
The saying “money alone does not make you happy” is nonsense. I don’t know anyone who has ever claimed that money alone makes you happy. That would make as much sense as saying “health alone does not make you happy” or “sex alone does not make you happy.” That’s true, too. But are these really arguments against wealth, health and for an abstinent life?

Poets, bards and philosophers have coined numerous aphorisms to question the value of money and condemn the pursuit of earthly riches. “If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself,” the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu warned. The musician Bob Dylan asked: “What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” And Albert Einstein said: “Money only appeals to selfishness and irresistibly invites abuse.” 

On the other hand, there have always been poets and philosophers who viewed the matter in quite a different light. “A healthy person without money is half sick,” the great poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said. The American poet Gertrude Stein said: “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. It’s better to be rich.” And the writer Oscar Wilde, who loved to exaggerate in order to provoke outrage and reveal simple truths, claimed: “When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.”

New research: People who have more money are happier
What could be more important than the question of what makes people happy? This is the subject of an entire field of scientific research, known as “happiness research.” Again and again, there have been claims that scientific happiness research has concluded that money does not make people happy. 

As early as 1974, the economist Richard Easterlin claimed that there is no positive correlation between higher income and a greater level of happiness, at least above a certain annual income. The two Nobel Prize winners in economics, Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, qualified Easterlin’s finding somewhat and related it only to certain expressions of the feeling of happiness. But they did also conclude that the correlation between higher incomes and greater happiness only applies up to a certain limit, namely an annual income of $75,000. Anything above that level, the two economists explained, no longer has a significant impact on a person’s happiness as they have already become accustomed to living in financial security and would only make minimal adjustments to their lifestyle with each subsequent salary increase.

New research has disproved this thesis. The most recent analysis comes from the psychologist Matthew A Killingsworth, who found that both “experienced wellbeing” and “evaluative wellbeing” did increase with income. “Experienced wellbeing” was measured by analyzing 1.73 million experience-sampling reports from 33,391 Americans. They were contacted at random times on their smartphones and asked the question, “How do you feel right now?” Their evaluative wellbeing was measured by the question: “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” The result: the $75,000 limit advanced in Kahneman and Deaton’s study did not exist. 

For incomes over $80,000, Killingsworth’s study also confirms a clear correlation between having a higher income and being happier. Methodologically, the study had some advantages over older studies. For example, in older studies, respondents could only answer “yes” or “no” to questions about their happiness, whereas the current study used a continuous scale. Another major advantage was that contacting respondents via their cell phones allowed the researcher to measure respondents’ current emotional states. In previous studies, people were merely asked to recall how they had felt at a given point in the past. However, such memories are often distorted and strongly coloured by respondents’ emotional states at the times they are asked.

What I would say to the lottery winner
Nevertheless, lottery winners should be careful. There are too many examples of lottery winners losing their entire winnings. People who become rich as entrepreneurs or investors have a certain personality structure, as I showed in my dissertation The Wealth Elite. But people who win the lottery are just lucky, and they are unlikely to have the knowledge and mental skills to manage money.

We also know this from the countless pop stars and elite athletes who came into a lot of money quickly – and then lost it all. But these people were not unhappy when they had a lot of money, they were unhappy when they lost it.

About the author

Rainer Zitelmann is a sociologist and wealth researcher. He is the author of the book The Wealth Elite, in which he scientifically analyzes the psychology of the super-rich.  This news service reviewed the book here.

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