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The On Being Project

How Do You Know When You’re Making Too Much Money?

How do you know when you’re making too much money?

What? Huh? Is that a typo? Is this girl crazy?

Well, maybe, but here’s what I’ve been thinking: in recent years, there has been an explosion in awareness and debate about the widening wealth gap in this country. Most of this valuable conversation has been focused on one of two extremes: the struggles of the working poor, who just can’t seem to get ahead, or, at its most confrontational, the immorality of stockpiling obscene amounts of wealth — what journalist Chrystia Freeland calls “the age of the global plutocracy.”

If you dig deeper, you might find the brilliant work of Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level, in which they argue that more equal societies are better for everybody, but even that is an economic and political argument, not a personal call-to-action.

The assumption is fairly straightforward: earn as much as you can.

Money can buy you emotional safety and the chance to be authentic: tell a cruel boss to take a hike and don’t worry about paying your mortgage. Money can buy you space to heal: take time off when you injure your back without stressing. (Medical expenses are the most likely to plunge people into personal debt.) Money can buy you creative time: spend six months writing the novel that you’ve always dreamed about.

To some extent, of course, all of this is true. But it’s only part of the story.

Shoppers on Buchanan street in Glasgow, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images.)

Money often brings added professional pressure. It can feel like a raise is a promise that you will spend more time in the office, which translates into less time at home, among family or friends, or doing creative projects that don’t have big bottom line prospects. Many people have every intention of telling the boss to take a hike, taking time off to heal, or doing that creative project, and simply never get off of the hamster wheel of work.

Further, the way we interpret our own financial health is so dependent on those around us. We often think about what it’s like to “keep up with the Joneses,” but rarely do we consider what it’s actually like to be the Joneses. Is their perceived comfort actually comfortable? Does their safety net, indeed, make them safe? Are they spending their time with the people they love, doing things that give them joy?

Money, in sum, may buy you choice, but it rarely comes without complexity. While the benefits of a safety net are undeniable, the economic downturn illustrated just how relative the notion of security really is. (For a wild illustration of this, check out Lauren Greenfield’s award-winning documentary on one obscenely wealthy family’s fall, The Queen of Versailles.)

A woman sits with an iPhone bag in Beijing. (M.L. Duong / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton analyzed data from more than 450,000 U.S. households and found that there is an income plateau after which money has no measurable effect on daily contentment. The magic number? ,000.

Of course, this depends on which state you live in. Mississippians actually need only ,850 while those in the Aloha State need a whopping ,175. And households vary greatly in size and need. A single mom living in the middle of an expensive city with three kids with special needs, for example, probably needs a lot more money.

But for the purposes of considering this neglected question, if ,000 is a sort of magic number, how many Americans earn it already? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 34.4% of American households earned ,000 or above in 2013.

Following this logic, that means that over a quarter of Americans should not be asking themselves how they can go about increasing their earning potential — our de facto setting this country.

They should be asking themselves a whole different set of questions: Would my quality of life be better if I earned less? Should I consider not taking this promotion? Should I consider looking for a job that pays less, but brings me more satisfaction or fits better with my dream for how I structure my life? How does my current income affect my well-being? What are the effects of my wealth, however humble, on my child’s sense of self and worldview?

A businessman walks by a homeless woman holding a card requesting money in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images.)

There’s no question that the most valuable conversations we can have about income inequality exist at the extremes. We must create systems and structures that truly support poor people (of which there were 45.3 million in 2013) and we must question the morality of the so-called 1% (the wealthiest 160,000 families have as much as the poorest 145 million families).

There are lots of solid reasons for even upper-middle class Americans to worry about how much money they have socked away: the rising price of college, the threat of medical bankruptcy in a country with such a screwed up healthcare system, the prospect of retirement.

But even so, it’s unwise that we operate on income autopilot, uncritically operating as if the more money you make, the better off you are. For 34.4% of us, there’s scientific evidence that we may be jeopardizing our chance at the “good life” by blindly pursuing more.

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